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Matthew Walker

Emma Tekstra > Book Review  > Matthew Walker
The Inconvenient Truth About Sleep
– Matthew Walker

I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. Maybe there’s too much on my mind, or my overworked thyroid is impacting my sleep or life changes in the family… I have noticed that even a decaf coffee at 3p affects it (depending on the method of decaffeination there is still likely to be 10% caffeine in there) or a single piece of dark chocolate or even a cup of strong British tea in the morning can affect my sleep that night. Sometimes it takes me an hour or more to fall asleep and sometimes I wake at 2 or 3am having some trouble to go back to sleep again.

The bigger problem I thought though was why I needed 8 hours of sleep in the first place. I have a crazy busy life and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. The early bird catches the worm and all that. Enter Matthew Walker’s fascinating book Why We Need Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams. I knew sleep is an important pillar of good health but until I read this book I didn’t appreciate that it might be the cornerstone. Sleep deserves much more respect, reverence and attention than even I have been giving it.


Walker and I have some background in common. He attended the University of Nottingham in England possibly even around the time I was there. And, like me, he now resides in the US. A Professor of Neuroscience I would love to meet him (Mr Walker if you’re reading this, please get in touch!) not only to discuss sleep but to lay out for him the scientific evidence that God exists and created us humans. The only parts of the book I didn’t like were the clumsy ways he tries to explain how sleep “evolved”. Walker quite rightly refers to sleep as “far more intelligent than we had once imagined” and “really quite magical” but doesn’t marvel at the master creative genius that is God designing such a wondrous mechanism. I marveled the whole time I was reading the book!

Part 1 provides a fascinating explanation of how sleep takes place physiologically and the different systems at play. He explains the 24-hour circadian rhythm of our biological clock and the separate factor known as “sleep pressure” which is caused by the chemical adenosine building up in your brain as time passes since you were last asleep. He also explains how these factors are impacted by the hormone melatonin which helps you fall asleep and the legal drug so many of us rely on called caffeine.

The illustration of the web spiders weave when on caffeine as compared to being sober or ingesting LSD, marijuana or speed is worth the price of the book alone!

The explanations of REM-sleep (named due to the Rapid Eye Movements involved in an otherwise completely motionless, and as it turns out – paralyzed, body) compared to Non-REM-sleep are particularly eye-opening (no pun intended!). We cycle through REM and NREM sleep throughout the night and both are independently critical to our healthy functioning. Do without one or the other (or both) and you are seriously jeopardizing your health to the point of death. All of this is carefully explained and many scientific studies referenced.


Part 2 focuses on what sleep deprivation does to the brain and the body. And by the way sleep deprivation doesn’t mean missing a night of sleep. Even getting just 6 hours a night for multiple nights creates significant impairments in an adult (children need far more) and a weekend of “catching up” doesn’t even begin to repair the damage.


From impairing your ability to learn and retain what you have studied to behavioral and neurological disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, Walker explains all the connections. He even goes so far as to suggest 50 per cent of the ADD diagnoses (Attention Deficit Disorder) in children are actually sleep deprivation.  The connection to Alzheimer’s is particularly telling due to one of the many functions of sleep to detoxify the brain of chemicals and substances that harm it.


Beyond the brain he explains the science behind a lack of sleep and cardiovascular problems, diabetes, weight gain, fertility problems, immune system damage including susceptibility to infections (including colds and flu) and cancer, and even DNA impairment.


Part 3 focuses on REM-sleep and the functions of dreams which covers the most recent science and carefully designed experiments on some very trusting human subjects. It highlights why a shortage of REM-sleep in our teenagers is such a calamity given its ability to regulate social and emotional comprehension of the world. (REM sleep is most prominent in the later parts of the sleep cycle and as teenagers’ natural circadian rhythms put them in bed later at night, the early morning hours are critical when we are instead waking them up for school).


Part 4 gets into sleep disorders both the common such as periodic and even chronic insomnia and the tragic like narcolepsy. It gets into some of the ways our modern lifestyles have eroded our freedom to sleep such as electric lighting, temperature control of our surroundings, and the need for fixed work and school start times. In addition to alcohol and caffeine it delves into the murky world of sleep medications. Essentially, to quote Walker “Sleeping pills do not provide natural sleep, can damage health, and increase the risk of life-threatening disease”. He goes on to prove it.


Walker wraps up with a very honest look at sleep in society. In the workplace (overworked employees and the effect on productivity, colleague relationships and morale), in education (early start-times for high schools when our teenagers naturally have a later circadian rhythm and the harm we are causing them), and in healthcare (sleep-deprived doctors, medical students and surgeons contributing to recent statistics showing medical errors are the third highest cause of death in the US after cancer and heart disease).  


See the related post for non-chemical ways to get a better night’s sleep. In the meantime I hope this summary will encourage you to read Matthew Walker’s illuminating book or at the very least start prioritizing sleep in your own life.

Emma Tekstra
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