Today, I was watching Matthew Walker’s talk on “Why Sleep Matters” at Google. There were a number of interesting pieces of research he cited. The three most interesting points he made were how sleep affects our health, our learning and how we can get better sleep.
It doesn’t take a lifetime of sleep deprivation to cause problems. It only takes one hour. Did you know that there is a global experiment done every year on 1.6 billion people in 70 countries? It’s called Daylight Savings time. The interesting statistic here is that when we “spring forward” and lose an hour of sleep, we see a 24 percent increase in heart attacks. On the other hand, when we “fall back” and get an extra hour of sleep, we see a 21 percent decrease in heart attacks. There is an increase in the number of road accidents and suicide attempts the day after we spring forward and lose an hour of sleep. The road accidents are especially dangerous because when we’re impaired by drugs or alcohol, we react too slowly. When we’re sleep deprived, we don’t react at all. We have micro-sleeps that last only a few seconds, where we have stopped reacting at all. A few seconds can make the difference between life and death. Getting a proper night sleep can save your life.
They had one group of people sleep a proper 8 hours. They had the second group stay up all night. Like a classic college student all-nighter. They then had both groups learn a list of facts. The group who stayed up all night saw a 40% decrease in their ability to learn the facts for a test than those who had a full night sleep. As he notes, that can often be the difference between acing an exam and failing it. Getting sleep before you learn is important. They’ve also done research showing that getting a good night sleep after we learn is also important. In deep sleep stages, our brain connects the memories from our day to our long-term memory. If we don’t get a good night sleep, those thoughts might not make it into long-term memory and won’t help you on the test. From a creativity standpoint, REM sleep is the most interesting. This is the stage of sleep where we dream. Our brain throws ideas from our day and ideas from our long-term memory around in chaotic patterns. This helps us make connections to seemingly unrelated ideas. We’ve all had an experience where we didn’t know how to solve a problem, went to sleep, and woke up with the solution. This is why. This is also why you dreamed about a polar bear in Canada wearing flip-flops. It doesn’t have to make sense, it’s your REM cycle.
Lastly, he shared some insights in how to get better sleep:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even weekends. This will help you get a higher quantity and quality of sleep. Your body loves routines.
- If you can’t sleep after a while, go in another room and read something that isn’t too exciting. If you lie awake in bed for too long, your brain tends to associate your bed as a place where you are awake.
Get off electronics at least an hour before bed. They did a study where they had one group read out of a regular book and a second group read on an iPad for an hour before going to bed. What they found is that the production of melatonin (a chemical needed for sleep) was decreased by 50% in the people who read on their iPads and the effect continued for 3 hours.
Only do relaxing things in the hour before you want to sleep. Similar to #3
Experiment to find your chronotype. Your chronotype is a part of your genetic code that dictates when your body wants to sleep. If you had no external influence, no alarm clocks, no sleep deprivation, no expectations to be somewhere in the morning, when would you sleep and when would you wake up? That’s your chronotype. Whatever makes you feel “well rested”. You can’t change it, but if you sleep when your body wants to sleep by nature (not by habit), you will have better sleep and it will come easier. You may find that going to sleep an hour earlier or later makes you feel more rested. If you are not “catching up”, then it probably means you are getting closer to your chronotype. This is assuming that you are getting a full night’s sleep which is 7-9 hours for a healthy adult, whatever makes you feel “well rested”.
You can’t catch up. Sleep is not a bank where you can deposit sleep and withdraw it later. Trying to “catch up” on the weekends lessens, but cannot prevent, the long-term health impact of not getting enough sleep. And it introduces “social jetlag”, his term for sleeping on the weekends which causes you to not feel tired on weekend nights which means you start the workweek with a lack of sleep.
Sleep has a bad rap. People don’t like taking out for it. But, it is essential to good health, high performance and creativity. Then there is David Dinges, the head of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the Hospital at University of Pennsylvania. He forced a group of people to sleep for 6 hours a night for 2 weeks. At the end of the study, they were experiencing “the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk”. Don’t act drunk. Get good sleep. Change the world!
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