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The Imperative of Sleep

Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep, is an eye-opener on many levels. Reading it is probably a better prescription for bodily and mental health than a trip to the doctor, going on a diet, or running around the block. Walker, a PhD, is Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, and he starts out with this bit of perspective: “No matter what vantage point you take, sleep would appear to be the most foolish of biological phenomena. When you are asleep, you cannot gather food. You cannot socialize. You cannot find a mate and reproduce.  You cannot nurture or protect your offspring. Worse still, sleep leaves you vulnerable to predation. Sleep is surely one of the most puzzling of all human behaviors.”

Yet, Walker notes that sleep prevails across the entire animal kingdom and its “perseverance through evolution means there must be  tremendous benefits that far outweigh all of the obvious hazards and detriments.” Indeed, those listed benefits fairly blew me away, which is why I am sharing this and bought his book as Christmas fare for my family. He says and proves: There is not one major organ within the body or process within the brain that isn’t enhanced by sleep or impaired when we don’t get enough.

“Within the brain, sleep enriches a diversity of functions including our ability to learn, memorize, make logical decisions and choices… allowing us to navigate next-day social and psychological challenges with cool-headed composure.”  As if this wasn’t imperative enough, I was surprised to discover these alarming physical effects of sleep deprivation: “Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer… determining whether you will develop Alzheimer’s disease… increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure … and contributes to depression, anxiety and suicidality.” And then there is this little whopper: you eat more when you’re tired from too little sleep.

I predict you’ will lose sleep in panic after reading about the vital things that sleep accomplishes in the third of your life that you lie there doing it (or trying to). Because of the peril of this, I will share my behaviors in the hope this might help calm such panic. I read, which of course, most of us do until the eyes get sleepy. For me, that can be in the middle of a paragraph, sentence or word. (It’s best not to try to get to the end of the chapter; writers work hard to make that the last place you close the book.) So when your eyes begin shutting like a Venetian blind and you no longer make sense of the sentence in front of you, turn out that light and curl up under the covers. An hour later, if you are still awake, read a bit more and about 45 minutes later that will do it. You doubtless have your own tips for your bedtime/reading routines which  I’d like to know about. (Because mine don’t always work.)

Walker’s information about dreaming struck me as notable:” Dreaming provides “a consoling neurochemical bath that mollifies painful memories and a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity.” We are all creative in one way or another, but I wonder if my busy visual life all the day long doesn’t account for my wild dreams just about every night. After a steady week of nightly dreams and remembering each one on awakening, I slipped into bed mumbling, “Okay, what are we gonna do tonight?

I hope the intensity of this commentary on Walker’s book doesn’t put you to sleep. But wait …. maybe it will. If so, wishing you pleasant dreams.

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