January 2022

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

— Deep dive into the reasons why everyone needs a good nights rest.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

While listening to Matthew Walker's Ted Talk on sleep patterns, I came upon his book. Matthew Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the head of the Center for Human Sleep Science.

“Humans are not sleeping the way nature intended. The number of sleep bouts, the duration of sleep, and when sleep occurs has all been comprehensively distorted by modernity.” ― Matthew Walker

After graduating from high school, I found myself pulling all-nighters, working on computers on a routine basis. If it wasn't an all-nighter, it was 1-2 am and up early to digest the news and pre-market futures before returning to work. Rinse and repeat. I felt like the days were blurring, and I wasn't as sharp as I usually am. Many cups of coffee and looming deadlines typically got me through the day until the headaches set in. This is around the time I began my sleep research.

Now that I've read Why We Sleep, I have concluded that a body actually does need sleep to function how it was designed and drinking exorbitant amounts of coffee every day is really just blocking the effects of the molecule adenosine, leading to reduced tiredness - which over the long term causes a nasty crash. In his book, he explains that inadequate sleep is heavily affecting your body even if you don't realize it at the time. Over an extended period, he claims there is even a link to Alzheimer's. So what can you do to sleep better?

A great resource I have found to answer these questions other than this book is Matteo Franceschetti and Alexandra Zatarain of EightSleep (this is a referral link to get $200 off). They have built a smart mattress designed to help you fall asleep faster and improve the quality of your sleep. They also speak frequently about sleep fitness, so definitely check them out if you are interested in that.

Do we really need 8 hours of sleep? It seems like it. In Matthew Walkers' words, “the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations—diseases that are crippling health-care systems, such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer—all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep" or in the words of David Sinclair, the author of Lifespan, "sleep is intimately tied to the longevity survival circuit. NAD - Sirt1 are the master regulators of circadian rhythms".

Why do we sleep? Sleep is an essential function that allows your body and mind to recharge. Researchers also believe that sleeping helps promote the removal of waste products from brain cells. A good night's sleep also helps the body stay healthy and avoid illnesses, increasing your immune system. Walker goes on to say, “routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.” The brain cannot operate correctly if it does not get adequate sleep.

What can you do to improve your sleep quality?

  • The first thing I did was order Philips Hue smart bulbs. Normal LEDs emit a sleep corroding blue light. With my smart bulbs, I can change the light spectrum to a cool red which is the most conducive colour to promote sleep. I sometimes find it hard to read when my library is fully red in which case I make the lights a warm yellow.
  • Temperature is also a big factor of sleep hygiene. If you are able to set your bedroom temperature to be around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or about 18.5 degrees Celsius. According to Eight Sleep's blog, your body temperature naturally decreases as you prepare to sleep because the brain waves slow down and you’re not active enough to generate heat the same way as you do throughout the day. Temperatures that aren’t comfortable enough to sleep in will keep you alert (and awake) for longer and prevent you from entering deep sleep. Eight Sleep's Pod Pro does this automatically throughout the night.
  • Limiting alcohol, especially before bed will increase HRV (Heart Rate Variability) and REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep. Most people assume that drinking a glass of alcohol before bed as a night cap can be used as a sleep aid. By doing so you may be able to make yourself drowsy and fall asleep faster but your sleep quality is drastically declined. Your body has to work extra hard processing the alcohol which is one reason most people wake up the next morning feeling drained.
  • Depending on your line of work, a mid-day nap around 20-30 minutes can help improve your creativity and coronary health. Studies show by doing this your risk of a heart attack is reduced by half later in life.
  • Coffee is a fantastic invention but can cause issues with most people's sleep. My strategy is to reduce my intake of caffeine after 2:00 p.m. After then, if I want a coffee after dinner I drink decaf. Decaf isn't completely decaffeinated but it is reduced to around 2 mg instead of 98 mg in a typical cup of coffee.
  • Turning off screens 2-3 hours before bed can help put you to sleep. The human body runs on a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm. When the sun rises your body automatically produces cortisol, a hormone that wakes you up. As the sunsets, the body releases another hormone called melatonin that produces sleep. The problem with screens is they produce blue light which delays the natural production of melatonin reducing the feeling of sleepiness.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Walker taught me a lot about something we as humans do without thinking much about it. I'll be reading and studying sleep and longevity for many years to come. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

“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

My favourite quote from Why We Sleep

The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.

My favourite quote from Lifespan

As a species, we are living much longer than ever. But not much better. Not at all. Over the past century we have gained additional years, but not additional life—not life worth living anyway.
Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.