How can something we do every night, as natural as breathing, be causing us so much stress? Or, to put it another way, how much goodness are we missing out on by not sleeping properly? Why We Sleep aims to not just educate but also to guide us through a healthier slumber.
But why is sleep even that important?
According to the author, Dr Matthew Walker PhD (Professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California), new, cutting-edge research shows how strongly linked sleep is to maintaining a healthy balance – including warding off brain diseases such as; Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
Why We Sleep also looks at the brain patterns, we go through when sleeping, why these are important, and how to improve these processes.
For me, someone who’s struggled with sleep over the past few years, this book has been revolutionary.
As with all things health-related, if problems are ongoing, please go and see your doctor. Sleep problems may be the symptom of underlying health issues.
All in a day’s work
One big takeaway that I’ve been guilty of in the past is thinking, ‘I’ll just have a lie-in at the weekend to catch up.’
Unfortunately, this is problematic for two reasons.
One – it’s impossible to catch up on sleep. It’s not a bank that you can just top-up whenever you like. If you only get six hours of sleep, then your brain’s already stressed the next day. And ultimately, the time for rest has passed.
Second – By not sticking to a regular sleep schedule, you throw off your sleep circadian (body clock). For example, ever wondered why it’s so difficult to get up for work on a Monday morning? It’s because you’ve spent the last two days slumming it in bed until 10am.
It sounds brutal to begin with, but trust me, I’ve found this to be one of the most beneficial habits for getting a better quality of sleep. And better sleep always leads to greater mental clarity in the long run.
And think about all the things you can do with all those extra hours on the weekend! My house has never been tidier.
Five steps to Heaven
So what are the key things you need to be aware of so that you can begin improving your sleep? As Walker says, ‘sleep should be non-negotiable’ given how important it is to improving both our physical health and mental wellbeing.
With that, you should look to implement all of these things if you want to achieve the best sleep possible.
1 – Avoid Alcohol and Marijuana
A nightcap does not help you sleep. It simply ‘knocks out your cortex’ and puts you into a sedative state. Whilst this sounds good on the surface, as most of this book will tell, there’s much more to sleep than feeling relaxed.
It will litter your sleep with more awakenings than would be seen in a more natural sleep cycle. This will lead you to get both less sleep and a lower quality of sleep. This means you won’t feel rested the next day, and due to the relaxed state, you forget waking up constantly throughout the night.
In regards to weed, it will also block your dream sleep, again meaning you don’t feel fully rested the next day. It creates a cycle in which the user then feels aggravated and tired, thus leading them to seek out more.
2 – Go outdoors each morning
Preferably, this should be for 15 minutes when you first get up. This helps set your internal clock, letting your body know that it’s now morning and it’s time to get going.
It might seem silly, but how often do you get up without pulling back the curtains? Instead, get them open as soon as possible and let that sunshine come flooding through.
3 – Regular exercise
If possible, this should be done early in the morning to wake the body up for the day ahead. If you go running or do yoga, this can also help to achieve point two of getting outdoors early.
4 – Keep electronics out of the bedroom
Due to the blue light given off by mobile phones, tablets and computers, it can stimulate your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. According to a study at Harvard University, the wavelengths of blue light ‘boost attention, reaction times, and mood’, which is fine in the day but not so great when you want to fall asleep.
Likewise, it suppresses Melatonin, the chemical naturally created in your brain that helps you fall asleep.
5 – Don’t use your bed for anything other than sleeping and sex
This stops your brain from associating it with all the negative things we tend to focus on whilst lying down. However, we are incredibly adaptable, and it doesn’t take too long before those nights of worry become the norm.
This also means if you struggle to get to sleep within twenty to thirty minutes, don’t lie there worrying about it – get up and do something relaxing in another room. But make sure to avoid artificial lighting and electronic devices. Meditations, relaxing music or reading are the best solutions. As soon as you feel tired again, go back to bed, hopefully, this time with better results.
As I say above, Why We Sleep is a monumental step forward in understanding sleep and general health links. By understanding the connections in learning, cognitive functioning and mental health, we can begin to assort our lives accordingly.
I was one of the frivolous ones who thought you could catch up on a day off. Or sip tea until 10 pm, not expecting any side effects. But gone are those days. This book has single-handedly changed my perspective on sleep and why it’s as essential as any diet or any exercise we choose to do.
Treat sleep as a chance to refresh. Treat sleep as a chance to learn. And most of all, treat sleep like your life depends on it!