Sleep or Die: Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imperil Our Health

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could fix the work/life thing by chuck­ing out the dif­fer­ence? At home, you’re in the office, at the office, you’re at home, always on and nev­er off—sleep, option­al. Two-four hours per 24-hour cycle should be enough, right? Wrong. We need prop­er sleep like we need good food, low stress, engag­ing pur­suits, etc.—to thrive and live a long and hap­py life. If you wait until you’re dead to sleep, you’ll be dead soon­er than you think. “Short sleep pre­dicts a short­er life,” explains sleep researcher Matthew Walk­er in the RSA ani­ma­tion Sleep or Die, above. “Sleep,” he says, “is a non-nego­tiable bio­log­i­cal neces­si­ty.“

The Nation­al Sleep Foun­da­tion rec­om­mends that adults sleep an aver­age of eight hours a night. That num­ber may vary from per­son to per­son, but few­er than six can be high­ly detri­men­tal. Walk­er is some­thing of a “sleep evan­ge­list,” notes Berke­ley News. Ask him about “the down­side of pulling an all-nighter, and he’ll rat­tle off a list of ill effects that range from mem­o­ry loss and a com­pro­mised immune sys­tem to junk food crav­ings and wild mood swings.” The neu­ro­sci­en­tist tells Ter­ry Gross on Fresh Air, “Every dis­ease that is killing us in devel­oped nations has causal and sig­nif­i­cant links to a lack of sleep.”

Walk­er has a lot more to say about sleep in the inter­view below, includ­ing tips for get­ting there, whether you can make up for lost sleep (you can’t), and why you shouldn’t yank teenagers out of bed on the week­ends. Why should we lis­ten to him? Well, he isn’t just any sleep sci­en­tist. “To be spe­cif­ic,” writes Rachel Cooke at The Guardian, “he is the direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Human Sleep Sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, a research insti­tute whose goal—possibly unachievable—is to under­stand every­thing about sleep’s impact on us, from birth to death, in sick­ness and health.”


The ben­e­fits of sound sleep include enhanced cre­ativ­i­ty and con­cen­tra­tion, low­er blood pres­sure, bet­ter mood reg­u­la­tion, and high­er immu­ni­ty and fer­til­i­ty. Lack of sleep, how­ev­er, is “increas­ing our risk of can­cer, heart attack and Alzheimer’s,” notes Cooke. Indeed, “after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep,” Walk­er tells The Guardian, “your nat­ur­al killer cells—the ones that attack the can­cer cells that appear in your body every day—drop by 70%.” Sleep depri­va­tion has such seri­ous out­comes that “the World Health Organ­i­sa­tion has classed any form of night-time shift work as a prob­a­ble car­cino­gen.”

Sleep holds many mys­ter­ies, but one thing sci­en­tists like Walk­er seem to know: poor sleep leaves us more in sick­ness than in health. And we are in the midst of a “cat­a­stroph­ic sleep-loss epi­dem­ic.” “No one would look at an infant baby asleep, and say ‘What a lazy baby!” Walk­er observes. Yet adults have “stig­ma­tized sleep with the label of lazi­ness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by pro­claim­ing how lit­tle sleep we’re get­ting.” It’s a way to broad­cast that we aren’t falling behind or miss­ing out. But our bod­ies’ nat­ur­al cycles and rhythms don’t speed up along with tech­nol­o­gy and glob­al mar­kets.

“As bed­rooms every­where glow from the screens of round-the-clock tech­nol­o­gy con­sump­tion,” Berke­ley News writes, mil­lions of peo­ple suf­fer phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, cog­ni­tive, and psy­cho­log­i­cal stress­es. Or, put more pos­i­tive­ly, “a grow­ing body of sci­en­tif­ic work” shows that “a sol­id sev­en to nine hours of sleep a night serves func­tions beyond our wildest imag­i­na­tions.” Learn more about not only what’s gone wrong with sleep, but how to start address­ing the prob­lem in Walker’s book Why We Sleep: Unlock­ing the Pow­er of Sleep and Dreams.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Inter­ests Grad­u­al­ly Wider and More Imper­son­al”

Bri­an Eno Lists the Ben­e­fits of Singing: A Long Life, Increased Intel­li­gence, and a Sound Civ­i­liza­tion

10 Longevi­ty Tips from Dr. Shigea­ki Hino­hara, Japan’s 105-Year-Old Longevi­ty Expert

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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