A Wake Up Call to Hit the Sack

Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep’ shows that when you snooze, you win.

By Crawford Kilian 5 Nov 2018 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

For a day or two after the end of daylight saving time, emergency rooms all over North America are a little less stressed. Very predictably, they have to deal with fewer heart attacks and fewer auto-accident injuries, because people will have had an extra hour of sleep on Nov. 4.

It’s no surprise to Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. He knows that heart attacks and auto accidents spike just after daylight saving starts in the spring, and everyone is short an hour of sleep. We are indeed killing ourselves by not getting enough sleep, he argues, and not just from fooling with our clocks twice a year; we’re doing everything wrong.

Neither business nor governments seem to care much, because, like most of us, they have little idea how important sleep is — both enough of it and the right kinds of it.

Walker’s research has shown him that enough sleep every night — close to eight hours — keeps us healthy and alert through a long life. Too little sleep, and we fall prey to a host of ills: among others, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, infertility, and Alzheimer’s. Lack of sleep can even change our DNA.

It does seem like a sweeping claim. Walker is clearly in love with his subject, and he’s a rare scientist who can write well for nonscientists. Perhaps he’s too much in love and sees a cure-all in a simple good night’s sleep. But he also cites extensive, peer-reviewed research — including his own — in proving his points. He and his colleagues even put people in MRI scanners so they can watch their subjects dreaming — and tell what they’re dreaming about.

Walker summarizes a flood of new information from sleep science. Among other things, we learn that babies sleep so much because that’s when they lay down neurological connections while also assimilating their latest experiences and deducing the structure and grammar of the language they hear when awake. We go through several phases of sleep every night, each of them essential: We need them for building memory, making connections between experiences, and for detaching emotions from those memories. That detachment fails in PTSD cases, where sufferers keep reliving the emotions of traumatic moments.

Walker’s description of the phases of sleep and the function of dreams is fascinating, but the political and public health implications of his research are alarming. If he’s right, we need to change the way we do almost everything, from work to school.

For example, we all have “circadian rhythms,” daily cycles when our bodies launch chemicals that wake us up or make us sleepy. Adolescents’ circadian rhythms shift; they fall asleep later than children and adults, and wake up later as well.

Yet we insist on blasting them out of bed when it’s 7 a.m. but their brains think it’s 2:30 or 3 a.m., and expect them to function well in school. They haven’t completed their sleep cycles, so they fail to remember all that they’ve learned the day before and go though the day groggy and tuned out.

Walker says sleep deprivation is a factor in mental health problems, which tend to emerge in adolescence. By forcing teenagers to get in step with the rest of society, we keep some of them out of step for life.

And it doesn’t get better in postsecondary, where students routinely pull all-nighters to study for exams or finish term papers. Walker finds that students need at least two or three nights of sound sleep to embed what they’ve studied in their memory. Stagger into a final after 24 hours awake, and what you’ve “learned” overnight is already gone.

Walker pointed this out to his colleagues when he was working at Harvard and got a frosty reception; the other profs just blamed their students for poor time management.

When we reflect that fuzzy thinking and poor judgment are consequences of sleep deprivation, we might forgive Walker’s Harvard colleagues for their response. After all, they’re likely just as sleep-deprived as their students.

Walker points to five critical problems that rob us of our sleep, our wits, and our health.

Electric lights (and LEDs). Thomas Edison’s light bulb extended daylight and tricked our brains into thinking it wasn’t yet bedtime. LEDs in the form of iPad screens have made things worse; their blue light suppresses our melatonin production when we check our email and Twitter feed one last time at midnight.

Temperature control. We need to cool our body cores, which isn’t easy when the thermostat is set too high. Cold feet in bed is a good way to fall asleep fast.

Caffeine. After a bad night’s sleep we need a massive dose of caffeine that will ensure more bad sleep tonight. Teenagers chugging caffeinated “energy” drinks might as well hit themselves in the head with a hammer.

Alcohol. If you wait until the sun’s over the yardarm for the day’s first drink, you’re too late. Nightcaps are even worse. Walker’s advice: If you study, don’t drink.

Scheduling. From the days of the whistle summoning workers to the mill, to Silicon Valley’s glorification of the 100-hour week, we’ve short-changed ourselves on our sleep and our health. The alarm clock only installs the enemy beside our bed.

Clearly, the findings of Matthew Walker and his colleagues are a challenge to us all. We’ve accepted a regimen that values being wide awake and devalues sleep. Yet to maintain wakefulness we sabotage ourselves with our phones, coffee and alcohol. When we’re sleepy we comfort ourselves with extra snacks and bigger meals, and before we know it we’re not only sleepy but overweight. Sleeping pills are no solution; Walker shows that they induce unconsciousness, not sleep, and may even be associated with higher infection and cancer rates.

When sleep deprivation is part of the job description for first responders, doctors, soldiers, entrepreneurs, office workers, and countless others, it’s hard to find a constituency that might advocate for a less suicidal way to make a living. After all, the decision-makers are themselves sleep-deprived and not functioning at the top of their game. Mere scientific evidence like Walker’s is unlikely to make them change.

Still, we can hope some bright young people will not only recognize the mess their elders have made, but figure out a solution. That solution, however it encourages better sleep, will solve a host of other problems as well.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Do not:

  •  Use sexist, classist, racist or homophobic language
  • Libel or defame
  • Bully, threaten, name-call or troll
  • Troll patrol. Instead, downvote, or flag suspect activity
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities


  • Verify facts, debunk rumours
  • Add context and background
  • Spot typos and logical fallacies
  • Highlight reporting blind spots
  • Ignore trolls and flag violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity
  • Stay on topic
  • Connect with each other


The Barometer

Have any major issues been missed in the Alberta election campaign?

Take this week's poll