The Secrets of Sleep

In his recent book, “Why We Sleep”, Professor Matthew Walker draws on over twenty years of research to explain how we can harness sleep’s transformative power to change our lives for the better. Compared with other basic human needs, the purpose of sleep had remained elusive until the explosion of scientific discoveries over the past 20 years. Research has now proved the importance of dreaming (always one of my interests) as a means to mollify painful memories and to inspire creativity and wellbeing.

The need for sleep is dictated by the body’s circadian rhythm, which relies on external cues such as light and temperature. This explains why our bedrooms should be cool, quiet and dark (free of all blinking or winking gizmos and gadgets). Humans have three sleep phases: light sleep, deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when dreams occur (whether or not we remember them). Each phase has a unique purpose and is equally important: Deep sleep organizes learning and memories, REM sleep is the creative phase and light sleep connects these phases. Sleep also balances our emotions, fine-tunes our metabolism and regulates our appetite. Therefore, sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of emotional instability, memory loss, learning difficulties and obesity.  In other words, sleep is free, and often more effective than many expensive medicines which often have negative side-affects. Some of this information might seem self-evident, but Walker also explains how we can harness sleep to regulate the hormones that can help prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.

In summary, this book highlights the importance of adults getting between 7 and 9 hours sleep every night.  (Children and adolescents need more, which reminds me of the old saying: “Sleep before midnight is golden, sleep after midnight is silver and sleep during the day is lead”). However, Walker would probably disagree as he also recommends an early afternoon siesta!

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Penelope Freeland