Why Sleep is Your Superpower

Why do we sleep? What influence does sleep, or the lack thereof, have on our work performance? Can sleep really be your superpower?

Sleep Superpower

Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Founder and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, makes a fascinating and compelling case for making sure you a good night’s rest, every night, in his TED Talk, “Sleep is Your Superpower.”

Lack of sleep can have severe consequences on the immune system, cardiovascular health, and a person’s risk profile for serious and chronic diseases, Walker explains, while describing the many positive mental and physiological impacts associated with sleep. He calls it: “The most powerful elixir of life.”

Sleep Loss Epidemic

Still, Walker notes that two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to get the recommended 8 hours of sleep at night. There are significant public health implications to our collective sleep deficit, from vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving to increased heart attack rates and even suicide risk. So severe is the situation that the World Health Organization has declared a “sleep loss epidemic” throughout much of the industrialized world.

“Why We Sleep,” Walker’s 2017 book, details much of his research and the evidence uncovered by others working in the sleep science field. Outside of academia, Walker has served as a sleep consultant to the NBA, NFL, and Pixar Animation Studios, among others, helping them understand the connections between sleep and human health and performance.

The Real Risks of Skimping on Sleep: Disease & Weight Gain

In one of Walker’s experiments, just one week of insufficient rest could elevate the blood sugar level in his test subjects to prediabetic levels. He cites another experiment involving just a single night where his subjects were restricted to merely four hours of shut-eye. The alarming result was a 70% drop in what he calls the “natural killer cells” that keep your immune system fighting off infections and disease. Walker posits that this state of immune deficiency can explain the “significant links” researchers have found between short sleep duration and a person’s risk of developing numerous forms of cancer. Not getting enough rest, and particularly deep sleep, can also be a contributing factor to cognitive and memory decline in aging and in Alzheimer’s disease, as he notes.

Skimping on sleep will also boost your hunger hormones, while at the same time depressing those signals that tell you when your stomach is full. So it’s no wonder there’s a strong connection between poor sleep and weight gain.

In his TED Talk, Walker sums it up bluntly: “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.”

The Benefits of Bedtime

On the flip side, there are many health-enhancing powers that quality, ample sleep bestows. When research participants got a full 8 hours of sleep, Walker observed significant restorative impacts on both the body and mind, with considerable boosts to memory, learning, and mental function. Getting regular, quality sleep (including periods of deep sleep, known as REM sleep for the rapid eye movement that occurs beneath our closed lids) promotes bursts of electrical activity in our brains. Walker terms these bursts “sleep spindles” and explains that they operate almost like a file transfer system, not only processing new memories, but moving them from short-term to long-term storage in the brain.

Sleep on It

Deep sleep can also enhance creative problem-solving skills, allowing us to make fresh connections between pieces of information, and observe patterns we might not have noticed before. Walker cites studies in his own lab, involving short-term tests with subject groups asked to navigate an unfamiliar maze after differing amounts of sleep. He also points to examples of well-known “transformational” creativity inspired by dreams: Keith Richards and Paul McCartney have credited dreams with writing some of the world’s best-loved pop songs, along with Jimi Hendrix, Sting, and many others. 19th-century Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) credits his dreaming brain with helping him solve and document the perodic table of the elements, a project that had frustrated and eluded him for years. Turns out the suggestion to “sleep on it” when you’re wrestling with a problem or a big decision is good advice!

Dreaming also plays an important role in calibrating our emotions, Walker writes, allowing us to better interpret social cues and enjoy more positive interactions. He refers to dreaming as “overnight therapy” explaining that one of its functions is “to help us take the sting out of our painful emotional experiences during the hours we are asleep, so that we can learn from them and carry on with our lives.”

How to Get More Quality Sleep

Walker’s research shows why we need to recognize that sleep is a non-negotiable — not a luxury — when it comes to our well-being. Here’s his 5 tips for better sleep:

1. Stick to a schedule

Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, regularity is the key to improving sleep quantity and quality. This means keeping similar hours whether it’s a weekday or weekend. And resist hitting the snooze button, if you can, since alarms raise our blood pressure and activate the “fight or flight” response, so doing this repeatedly isn’t healthy.

2. Cool off

Our body temperature needs to drop 2-3 degrees to initiate asleep, which is why cooler rooms make it easier (and hot nights can leave us tossing and turning). Walker recommends 65 degrees as the ideal bedroom temperature for most people. If you don’t have AC, splashing cool water on your face, armpits, and feet, or taking a warm bath before bed, can both start a reduction in core temperature.

3. Dim the lights

Aim for low lighting in the bedroom, and maintain darkness throughout the night (using blackout curtains or an eye mask if that helps). Avoid screen time in the hour or two before sleep, since exposure to blue light sends our brains a “daytime” signal, messing with our circadian rhythms. Try using blue light filters on your screens if you must use technology. Ideally, you should store/charge your devices in a room outside of the bedroom, and relax before bed with meditation, soothing music, or a good old-fashioned book.

4. Say no to a nightcap

Sedatives such as alcohol, sleeping pills, THC, and CBD products all suppress our all-important deep-sleep cycles. Except in rare cases, Walker recommends against medication to address sleep problems. He recommends a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy known as CBT-I, where you only go to bed when you’re feeling sleepy, and gradually adjust your schedule earlier, until you’re getting a full 7-8 hours each night.

5. Don’t toss and turn – get up

If you’re lying awake and unable to sleep for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and try to find a relaxing activity (reading, journaling, sketching) until you become tired. Fretting about lack of sleep can lead to more anxiety and you don’t want to form mental associations of struggle with bed.

Being temporarily sleep deprived because of travel, small children, or stress is fairly common and it’s different from true insomnia, Walker explains. A person with insomnia has the opportunity to sleep, but lacks the ability to fall asleep (“onset insomnia”) or stay asleep (“maintenance insomnia”) resulting in serious distress. If you’ve tried all the above and still have problems, it might be time to see a sleep specialist – someone with expertise in sleep disorders, since primary care providers aren’t necessarily up-to-date on sleep science, and will often prescribe sleeping pills, which won’t produce natural sleep).

Additional Resources:

Elisabeth Flynn is a freelance writer who lives and works outside Philadelphia. She writes about food, fitness, workplace culture, and personal finance.

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