I wish someone would have told me 25 years ago a fraction of the things I learned by reading the book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker PhD. So I am writing this so others don’t have to wait as long as I did.
I can’t possibly touch on all of the major topics that are covered in Matthew Walker’s book, so I won’t. Instead, I have chosen four things that I wish I could tell myself if I could go back in time to when I was just starting my adult life:
- Mild Sleep Deprivation Has the Same Impact on Driving as Being Drunk
- Sleep Is the Foundation of Health
- Your Ability to Retain Knowledge, Learn, and Be Creative Is Directly Related to Sleep
- Sleep Disruptors to Avoid
Before I cover these topics I just want to clarify that I am not a doctor, I don’t play one on TV, and I do not want anyone reading this post to just take this article and the information in it at face value. Do your own research and form your own opinions, but at the very least, take a look at how you may or may not want to change the sleep habits in your life. A quote we often hear is that we sleep away 1/3 of our life, but it turns out that the 1/3 of our life we spend sleeping is a pretty worthwhile investment.
Mild Sleep Deprivation Has the Same Impact on Driving as Being Legally Drunk
When I first started reading this part of the book, I was thinking that the author must mean someone who hasn’t slept for days… someone who is severely lacking sleep. But it turns out our cognitive capabilities start becoming significantly impaired with only very small amounts of sleep deprivation. The following passage from the book sets up an example:
“Said another way, if you wake up at seven a.m. and remain awake throughout the day, then go out socializing with friends until late that evening, yet drink no alcohol whatsoever, by the time you are driving home at two a.m. you are as cognitively impaired in your ability to attend to the road and what is around you as a legally drunk driver.”
Just the simple act of being awake for more than 16 hours (even after getting a full night of sleep) is enough to significantly impair your cognitive capabilities behind the wheel. I can’t tell you how many nights during college I did the very thing the author described and never once did I think my sleep patterns were something I should be considering before getting behind the wheel.
Below is a list of facts cited in the book that really hit home for me:
- Every hour, someone dies in a traffic accident in the US due to a fatigue-related error.
- Car crashes rank among the leading causes of death in most first-world nations.
- In any given week, more than 2 million people in the US will fall asleep while driving their motor vehicle ( or more than 250,000 every day).
- Vehicle accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.
The author goes on to explain just how little sleep deprivation is required to be impaired and how easy it is to start racking up a sleep deficit without even knowing it:
“Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours.”
Before reading this book, I would average about 6 hours of sleep each night. I liked to get up really early (around 5 a.m.) and get a start on email and work tasks while it was quiet before making the commute into work. My commute is about 45-minutes each way, so I spend about an hour and half of my day each day piloting a vehicle down to the road. It was a normal occurrence (especially when driving home at night) to have a very strong desire doze off so my lack of sleep was definitely impacting me. One of my neighbors, when I was a kid, fell asleep behind the wheel and drove his car off the road and died. I also had a co-worker recently who kept dozing off while driving and found out he had sleep apnea, and once he got a CPAP machine it completely changed how he felt during his waking hours. So at least for me, the information in this section of the book matched up really well to what I had observed in my own life.
Sleep Is the Foundation of Health
I always had a sense that sleep was pretty important, even if until recently I didn’t give it much priority. But I had never heard it described as the foundation of health before. The author’s exact words on the subject are below:
“I was once fond of saying, ‘Sleep is the third pillar of good health, alongside diet and exercise.’ I have changed my tune. Sleep is more than a pillar; it is the foundation on which the other two health bastions sit.”
About 10 years ago, I adopted a rather ambitious weight-lighting program and lost about 40 pounds and put on more muscle than I ever thought was possible. While going through that routine (which lasted about 6-months) there were many, many days I would get up and be so sore and tired that it was hard to move much less workout the next day. Fast forward to just a few months ago. I’ve since put all of that 40 pounds of weight back on and I decided I would start that weight-lifting routine up again. This time there was a difference. About 8 months ago I finished reading this book on sleep and started getting 8 hours of sleep every night without exception. When I started doing this same weight-lifting routine I notice a major difference. I didn’t have the same problem of being sore and unable to walk or move after working out. Turns out getting that 8 hours of sleep was doing more than just keeping from being cognitively impaired, it was also healing my muscles from the beating I was giving them with these workouts. The author may just be on to something here.
The other thing that happened to me had to do with my cholesterol levels. About a month before I read this book and started getting 8 hours a night of sleep, my doctor noted that my cholesterol was high and scheduled me to have more blood work in about 4 months to re-evaluate my levels. During that 4 months, my work travel was insane and I was eating out constantly as a result. In that 4 months, I gained about 15 pounds, but I was able to (even with all that travel) get 8 hours of sleep every night. After 4 months, my cholesterol levels came back and they had decreased. In fact, they had decreased more in that 4 months than they did 10 years ago after I lost 40 pounds. My doctor was not surprised at all. She confirmed that sleep was one of those things that pretty much works wonders on just about every aspect of our health.
Your Ability to Retain Knowledge, Learn, and Be Creative Is Directly Related to Sleep
After having spent 5 years getting my undergraduates degree and another 2 years getting my master degree, I would have really made good use of the following knowledge about sleep and learning. The following two quotes from the book really struck home for me:
“The results were clear. Sleep powerfully, yet very selectively, boosted the retention of those words previously tagged for ‘remembering,’ yet actively avoided the strengthening of those memories tagged for ‘forgetting.’ Participants who did not sleep showed no such impressive parsing and differential saving of the memories.”
So this means the old adage of “sleeping on it” really does have some merit. It turns out our brains “clean house” while we sleep, and that allows us to remember the things we want to remember and get rid of the things that we don’t.
“A final benefit of sleep for memory is arguably the most remarkable of all: creativity. Sleep provides a nighttime theater in which your brain tests out and builds connections between vast stores of information. This task is accomplished using a bizarre algorithm that is biased toward seeking out the most distant, nonobvious associations, rather like a backward Google search.”
So what I took from this topic in the book was that staying up and cramming all night was probably not the best use of my time. I would have been better off making sure I got plenty of sleep the night or two before my tests and spent a little less time at those late night study sessions. The other takeaway for me was that we get a lot of free work done on problems we are trying to solve while we sleep. Spend a little bit of time going over whatever complicated issue you are currently stumped by and your brain while sleeping will make connections that may just help you solve that problem the next day.
Sleep Disruptors to Avoid
This last nugget of information from the book I want to cover is the one that was the hardest to swallow. Two things I enjoy doing, as it turns out, was taking its toll on my quality of sleep. The first one was reading on my iPad before bed. One of the facts reported in the book was that by reading on a digital screen before bed the melatonin release was suppressed by over 50 percent as compared to when just reading from a printed book. Melatonin is one of the key ingredients responsible for getting our bodies into the proper state for effective sleep.
The second common sleep disruptor was alcohol:
“It is hard not to sound puritanical, but the evidence is so strong regarding alcohol’s harmful effects on sleep that to do otherwise would be doing you, and the science, a disservice. Many people enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, even an aperitif thereafter. But it takes your liver and kidneys many hours to degrade and excrete that alcohol, even if you are an individual with fast-acting enzymes for ethanol decomposition. Nightly alcohol will disrupt your sleep, and the annoying advice of abstinence is the best, and most honest, I can offer.”
So I made a few simple changes. I stopped using my phone and tablet before bed and switched over to reading either print books or an e-ink (non-back lit) Kindle and I replaced my nightstand lamp lightbulb with one of these (Lighting Science Good Night LED light bulb). The idea behind these specially designed LED bulbs is that they eliminate the blue light, which helps your body naturally release the melatonin it needs before you go to sleep.
The other change I made was with respect to alcohol. My wife and I like to have a glass of wine with dinner from time to time and I really like craft beer. So instead of having a glass of wine with dinner, I switched to having a glass of wine with my wife in the early afternoon on the weekends instead. The same with beer. I try to avoid having a beer at night and instead partake in my beer in the early afternoon.
My intent in writing this article wasn’t to try to summarize the book. There is way too much fascinating information in the book to even attempt to summarize. For a book that was so full of useful information, it was also quite the page-turner. I flew through the book because it seems like each section revealed yet another astounding piece of information about an activity that all of us spend 1/3 of our life doing (or maybe more accurately stated, not doing enough of). As I said at the beginning of this article, I don’t want anyone reading this to just take this information at face value. Instead, I wanted to get this information out there so you could form your own opinions. If the information in this article got you thinking, I highly recommend you pick up the book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker PhD, and give it a read for yourself. You won’t think the same way about sleep again after reading it.
Disclaimer: This article is NOT a review of the book. I purchased this book on my own and had no contact with either the author or the publisher. This is strictly an article about my thoughts and opinions about the book’s contents that I wanted to share with our readers.