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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