Why We Sleep (book summary)

why we sleep

There is a special kind of frustration that arises when something in life that seems so obvious is largely ignored by individuals, institutions, and society. Mathew Walker, Ph.D., and his book Why We Sleep offered both a cathartic and also exasperating read. The book fit in nicely with my recent reads of Rest (Pang), Slow (Honoré), and Dancing in the Rain (Murphy). What follows are a few of the countless salient points Dr. Walker has offered in this gem of a book.

  • Humans are not sleeping the way nature intended. Instead of the monophasic pattern (one long, single bout of sleep), we should be sleeping in a biphasic pattern (seven to eight hours in bed, followed by a thirty- to sixty-minute nap in the afternoon). (p. 68)
  • Studies have showed that mortality from heart disease increased 37-60+% when napping was eliminated in healthy (p. 70)
  • “Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?” (Yes, it’s sleep!) (p. 107)
  • Sleep before learning refreshes our ability to initially make new memories. Sleep after learning effectively clicks the “save” button on the newly acquired information. (p. 108)
  • Practice does not make perfect. It is practice, followed by a night of sleep, that leads to perfection. (p. 126)
  • Microsleep (complete blindness to the outside world for a few seconds) makes drowsy driving more dangerous than drug and alcohol induced driving, combined. (p. 134)
  • Sleep deprivation dramatically works against the developmental phase of life when adolescents are most vulnerable to developing psychiatric disorders. (p. 152)
  • Teachers work against their intentions (to have students retain learnings) when they end-load exams in the final days of a semester, thus encouraging short sleeping or all-nighters. Instead, there should be no “final” exams at a marking period, but rather more frequent, formative assessments(p. 156)
  • Give key factors that have powerfully changed how much and how well we sleep: (1) constant electric light, (2) regularized temperature, (3) caffeine, (4) alcohol, and (5) alarm clocks. (p. 265)
  • Consider “nap pods” in the workplace, like Nike and Google.
  • Starting school before 8:15am for high schoolers is like waking adolescents up in the middle of the night. A century ago, schools in the US started at 9:00.
  • Consider offering incentives to employees for getting their 8 hours nightly, such as extra vacation or personal days.

To Sleep or Not (p. 340)

Within the space of a mere hundred years, human beings have abandoned their biologically mandated need for adequate sleep—one that evolution spent 3,400,000 years perfecting in service of life-support functions. As a result, the decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity, and the education of our children.

This silent sleep loss epidemic is the greatest public health challenge we face in the twenty-first century in developed nations. If we wish to avoid the suffocating noose of sleep neglect, the premature death it inflicts, and the sickening health it invites, a radical shift in our personal, cultural, professional, and societal appreciation of sleep must occur.

I believe it is time for us to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep, without embarrassment or the damaging stigma of laziness. In doing so, we can be reunited with that most powerful elixir of wellness and vitality, dispensed through every conceivable biological pathway. Then we may remember what it feels like to be truly awake during the day, infused with the very deepest plentitude of being.


Twelve Tips for Healthy Sleep (p. 341)

  1. Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  2. Exercise is great, but not too late in the day (no later than three hours before bedtime).
  3. Avoid caffeine and nicotine.
  4. Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. (It erodes your REM sleep.)
  5. Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
  6. Avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep.
  7. Don’t take naps after 3pm.
  8. Relax before bed, such as reading or listening to music.
  9. Take a hot bath before bed (to drop your body temperature the necessary 2-3 degrees F).
  10. Dark bedroom, cool bedroom, gadget-free bedroom (anything that might distract your sleep).
  11. Have the right sunlight exposure. Wake up with the sun or bright lights.
  12. Don’t lie in bed awake (get up if you can’t sleep).