Body Conscious Books: ‘Why We Sleep’ by Dr. Matthew Walker

Everybody needs better sleep. Whether it’s the typical seven to eight hours a night or the frequent power naps throughout the day that keep us pumping through the daily grind of work, that one constant variable remains true. For some, especially since the pandemic has greatly exacerbated the normal sleep schedule, more attention is needed to keep us on our toes or, better yet, to keep them off the ground when getting that much-needed recharge at night.

Luckily, the curious few that wish to expand their knowledge of sleep past the basic understanding of the off-hours have been blessed by the sleep gods with Dr. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep. Dr. Walker is a ‘sleep expert’ but more specifically, he is a professor of psychology and neuroscience from Harvard Medical School who specializes in sleep studies. He has conducted many assortments of sleep-related research projects for over a decade at the University of California at Berkeley, finally capping off with the aforementioned book for the public to comfortably digest his vast knowledge of sleep health in a more episodic way.

Walker wishes to promote sleep health and knowledge in a more accessible fashion to the effect that the reader chooses the reading order. For instance, the preface of the book explains that if the reader wishes to skip past the chapter on sleep cycles in different animals and cut to the more relatable topic of caffeine’s effect on sleep, that it’s perfectly fine by Walker. He even goes on to say that if the book bores the reader into a deep sleep then he is even more flattered as he wants his audience to get better sleep and now he is the cause. Why We Sleep also delves into many different avenues as far as benefits go.

 

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The aforementioned caffeine and drug-related chapter reveals some eye-opening facts that might change the way you look at your typical morning cup of coffee. Walker relays that caffeine on a neurochemical level only gives the consumer the feeling of being more awake. The caffeine fights back against the chemical that adds ‘sleep pressure’ to the brain after twelve to sixteen hours of being awake, which prompts you to sleep. The caffeine only masks the natural sleep pressure despite that it’s still very much present in the brain, effectively becoming the largest practical placebo effect ever conducted in human society. This example is just the surface of what knowledge Walker’s notes includes, as well as some topics that relate to the socio-economical.

As children, not many enjoy waking up so early in the morning to catch the school bus, yet we did it anyway. One key chapter places the thoughts on that strict early morning time table that we lacked so many years prior. Essentially, the morning schedule in its initial inception was meant to accommodate the working class, i.e. factory workers to place their kids into school before the work shift and for school to dismiss after the parents got off work. Walker explains that the current system, however, is very outdated considering how modern work-life puts the parent’s routines at odds with the school schedules.

On the opposite end which comes from the research Walker studied, is that these early class times actually cause children a fair amount of developmental problems. Natural sleep schedules or the Circadian Rhythm in children K through twelve are very vital for proper cognitive development. This outdated system simply diminishes sleep health in so many children that eventually fall into bad habits later in life. One such habit of which Walker debunks as beneficial is the ‘All-Nighter’.

Every college student is guilty of pulling one of these when the late semester workload outweighs the amount of sleep possible on a given night. A study that Walker and his associates conducted showed that students who studied lightly but got a good night’s sleep performed better in every category than students who pulled an all-nighter studying, as memory retention peaks when the brain is properly rested. The book, as well as his sleep studies, are to push away from these poor and almost trivial rituals that people perpetuate, even without awareness of their being bad for their minds. A good night’s sleep, as well as consistent sleep, can be the difference between cognitive heights as well as the plummeting effects when finals are around the corner.

 

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The all-encompassing purpose of Why We Sleep is to subtly change the way we see sleep in order to better it for ourselves and the ones we create. These chapters may seem random at placing factoids about sleep throughout the read but it’s only because these subjects aren’t very well attended to. Out of the entirety of Walker’s training as a physician, only a mere four hours out of the entire program was dedicated to sleep health. Matthew Walker saw a huge lack of attention to a vital part of health, that being our natural overnight recharge. He dove into any which way it can be bettered for his patients and now the general public. It’s a quick and easily accessible read that’s sure to excite, inform, and just as well put you right to sleep. Don’t worry, that just means it’s working.

 

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