Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?
Matthew Walker. Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams
We tend to know more about things that aren’t part of our body than the things that are. Hammers, cars, politics and economics are usually better understood than what is going on inside of us. Interestingly, there is little education and mainstream information available on the thing that every single human (hopefully) spends one third of their life on. I am wondering therefore, how much do you know about sleep?
Before I started reading Matthew Walkers´ best-seller Why We Sleep, I knew that it was important to sleep between 7.5 to 8.5 hours a night. I knew that screens from laptops, telephones, and tablets radiated blue light that mingles with your circadian rhythm (wakefulness rhythm). This is a natural part of our life that is influenced by sunlight but doesn’t depend on it. Also, I had recently come to believe that “night-owls” (late sleepers) didn’t exist. They were just people that ignored their sleep impulse earlier in the evening.
Before I bought the book I was trying to optimize my sleep for a while already. I keep my phone away at night, and I engage in little demanding activities. Preferably I eat early so that I don’t go to bed on the verge of explosion and I aim to go to bed at the same time to stay in my rhythm. Let’s see what remained of that after reading Why We Sleep?
Waking Up in the Morning
To figure that out, let’s go through a day of sleep. Are you with me? 06:00 BEEP – BEEP – BEEP. Wake up, you get out of bed after falling asleep at 23:00. Did you sleep enough? Regardless of how you feel, you didn’t. Every human being needs around 8 hours of sleep each night. After a couple of days sleeping 7 hours, only one hour less, you perform like you didn’t sleep an entire night. How crazy is that.
When you come into the kitchen you pore yourself a cup of coffee – why? Because you like it, or because you can’t wake up otherwise? If it’s the latter, you are sleeping too little. Coffee increases your wakefulness, but it doesn’t decrease your sleepiness. It also stays in your system for a long time and modifies your sleep quality, unless you are a genetic outlaw. Which you are probably not.
Time to get into the car to work. Hopefully you are awake now, because there are more car accidents happening in the U.S. as a consequence of drowsy driving, than of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs together.
Sleep is Your Solution
When you fall into your desk chair, and you login to you computer your brain starts to make weird noises. Still this issue you can’t find a solution to. Why haven’t you found a solution? First question that should follow after: did I sleep enough?
During our REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, or our dream sleep, our brain becomes highly active. It starts reorganizing, activating, and connecting neurons. New knowledge gets transferred from your short-term memory to your long-term memory and your brain integrates this new knowledge with what already was. If you sleep well, this sleep feature greatly increases your creativity and the probability that you solve that issue at work.
For lunch you eat a big sandwich and talk to some colleagues. After you feel sleepy. You always eat to much for lunch. That could be, however you are also experiencing a natural dip in wakefulness under influence of your circadian rhythm. The best thing to do right now is to lie down and do a nap. Humans are biphasic sleepers (two times per day) even though this is not recognized in today’s (western) society. From now on you never have to feel guilty again for napping during the (preferably early) afternoon.
Let’s say you did nap, and you return to your computer. All of a sudden you find the solution to that everlasting problem. I told you sleep would help you..
Getting Ready to Sleep
When you arrive home in the evening you crash into the couch and get out your phone. Finally time to binge on social media and check what your friends are up to. Don’t do that too long because the bluelight coming out there reduces your sleep quality. At the very least install Twilight on your Android and F.lux on your computer to filter this light out, if you must use them at all. Better read a book, or talk to the person(s) you live with.
If you did that well you will get sleepy. During the day the hormone adenosine has been accumulating in your brain, creating an ever bigger sleep pressure. At the same time your wakefulness has been reducing. Depending on what type of person you are, the rhythm in which this happens is different. If you are an early sleeper this would be around 21:30, when you are a late-sleeper around midnight, and if you are in between around 22:30.
Interestingly, children around 15-16 years old usually get sleepy later than their parents. A significant amount of time that should be honored according to Matthew Walker, also a UC-Berkely Professor. Early school times have disastrous effects on the development of the brains of our children. Later starting times have been shown to result in an increase of SAT score of 200 on average. Finally I understand, why I would fall asleep every single time I sat down in the bus to high school.
You made it to bed. As soon as you really fall asleep your sleep pressure is going down and your brain starts doing some valuable maintenance. It cuts away what is not being used, it clears out plaque that might turn in to dementia later on and it processes emotional experiences.
The Power of Sleep
Emerging from this research renaissance is an unequivocal message: sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day—Mother Nature’s best effort yet at contra-death.
Matthew Walker. Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams
Why We Sleep has immensely increased my believe in the value of sleep, and how it all by itself can counter a lot of the issues thatmost of us encounter in our everyday life. Be it from feeling depressed, to diabetes to our performance on the soccer field. Sleep is the basis for everything to thrive upon. The single most important thing you can do according to the book is go to sleep at the same time and get up at the same time. Also during the weekends.
Oh and yes, read the book yourself. If you are going to read one book on health this year, or in your entire lifetime, read this one. Otherwise as well.