Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep” will make you rethink pulling an all-nighter ever again

Book cover of "Why We Sleep." A sign hangs from a doorknob that says: "The New Science of Sleep and Dreams."

Sleep consumes a third of our lives and its necessity often feels like a burden considering how busy we all are. It’s no wonder so many of us will delay a good night’s rest to complete work or continue chatting with loved ones into the early hours. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” Right?

Matthew Walker is here to tell you that this is an attitude that needs to stop. Not only is poor sleep damaging your health right now, the longer it continues the more years it’s likely to shave off your life. In fact, Walker is here to tell you that sleep is the foundation of our health, perhaps even more important than our essential need for food, water and exercise.

Why We Sleep does exactly what it says on the cover, presenting the science behind the functions of sleep. It’s an accessible text that isn’t weighed down with perplexing jargon, so if you didn’t even get a C in Science then have no fear. Walker expertly walks the reader through the facts but communicates complex information with understandable real-world situations that perfectly illustrate just how serious sleep really is. Before you’re even halfway through, you’ll never want to miss out on a healthy eight hours of sleep again. And don’t think you can make it all up at the weekend. As you will learn, none of us can ever truly repay a sleep debt.

In fact, Walker so desperately wants you to understand how essential sleep is that he assures you:

Should you feel drowsy and fall asleep while reading the book, unlike most authors, I will not be disheartened (…) On the contrary, I would be delighted.

Separated into standalone sections that can be read in any order, if you have a question about sleep then this book probably has the answer. Beginning with the chemicals in our brain that make us sleep and how sleep changes across our life span, Walker moves onto its health benefits as well as the dangers of sleep deprivation.

The Guinness Book of World Records allows a wide array of challenges for humans to face in the name of breaking records. But they stopped recognising attempts to break the world sleep deprivation record, as Walker outlines in the chapter titled, “Too Extreme for the Guinness Book of World Records.” If it’s all starting to sound very serious, I can assure you that’s exactly how Walker wants you to view it.

Walker emphasises:

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.

Following on from there, Walker explores the “why” of dreams and how dreams are essential for our mental wellbeing and problem-solving. This chapter may not answer every question you’ve ever had about our nightly hallucinations, but the science sheds light on why they are so beneficial. It also discusses the creative benefits as well as those who can control their dreams.

Sleep disorders kick off the final section of the book. As you might expect, insomnia and narcolepsy are given a thorough exploration. He also recounts the story of a man who experienced Fatal Familial Insomnia, a very rare sleep disorder that prevented one man from sleeping for months until it tragically led to his death. Whilst nothing like the “Russian Sleep Experiment” creepypasta where prisoners of war are forced to stay awake, the story is terrifying and heartbreaking.

Speaking of forcing wakefulness on prisoners of war, Walker delves into societal changes that need to be made, including abolishing sleep deprivation as a method of torture. And Walker doesn’t stop there.

We all need to rethink sleep. We need to make changes on an individual level but the government needs to take note too. For instance, a teenager’s circadian rhythm changes from when they were children. Their need for sleep begins later but they’re still being forced to get up early for school. We are forcing sleep deprivation on our youth. Once you’ve read this book, you’ll realise the horrific effect this has on young people’s physical and mental health.

Walker also has this to say:

Without change, we will simply perpetuate a vicious cycle wherein each generation of our children are stumbling through the education system in a half-comatose state, chronically sleep-deprived for years on end, stunted in their mental and physical growth as a consequence, and failing to maximize their true success potential, only to inflict that same assault on their own children decades later.

Furthermore, around 30% of our society is comprised of “night owls”, but the 9-to-5 is the normal working pattern that many companies simply refuse to make more flexible. Society-wide change needs to happen, and it starts with being informed.

Sleep deprivation degrades many of the key facilities required for most forms of employment. Why, then, do we overvalue employees that undervalue sleep?

I didn’t even mention Walker’s condemnation of sleeping pills, but then that’s not the only thing I missed. I’ve learnt more than I ever thought I’d ever need to know about sleep, and it’s a book I know I’ll keep coming back to. Everyone should read this book so that we might collectively become equipped with the knowledge to influence change.

Safe to say, I probably won’t pull another all-nighter again. I racked up a hefty financial debt during my university years. It turns out I racked up one hell of a sleep debt, too.

See also: Twelve Tips for Healthy Sleep (PDF: page 22)

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