How did you sleep last night? I was up at 3:30 a.m. and found myself finishing Why We Sleep by neuro-scientist and sleep researcher, Matthew Walker.

I had always been a good sleeper. That is, until I hit my 60s. If that is true for you, you’re not alone. A plethora of sleep research is now revolutionizing our understanding of sleep and its role in our lives.

Walker claims that sleeping less than six or seven hours a night “demolishes your immune systems,” raises the risk of Alzheimer’s, and the likelihood of “cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure,” causes weight gain, and can even shorten your lifespan.

While these facts are disturbing, Walker provides the research to backs up his claims.

Our lifestyles are hectic and sleep sometimes becomes the last priority. For 12 years, I proudly woke up at 4:15 a.m. and commuted to work at the crack of dawn to “beat the traffic.” That was after the years of raising young children and we know what that does to our sleep.

Now, with more time on my hands, armed with this recent research on sleep from the book, I can make some different choices.

Benefits of Sleep

Our pride should go the other way. We should proudly proclaim we get plenty of sleep. Here are just a few benefits:

Sleep Enhances Memory

Your brain is active while asleep, locking in learning by binding new memories to old ones.

Sleep Promotes Creativity

It helps your brain “fuse together disparate sets of knowledge that foster problem-solving.” One great example is Mendeleev. In 1869, he spent hours and hours of wakeful analysis of chemical elements. Then a dream revealed the periodic table.

Sleep Lowers Food Cravings

Sleep helps with the absorption of nutrients, regulates appetite, and helps with healthy food selection through impulse control.

Sleep Keeps Your Immune System Healthy

Sleep helps fight infection and has been found to help protect against cold and flu. Recent research found that sleep protects against some cancers by reducing inflammation.

Sleep Helps You Feel Happier and Less Anxious

Improving sleep quality is used as a therapeutic tool for people with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

Seniors Do Not Need Less Sleep

You may have heard that we need less sleep as we age. Walker explains that is not true. He does validate sleep problems by explaining that as we get older we may have fragmented sleep.

We may have trouble falling asleep or waking up multiple times in the night and then having trouble getting back to sleep. This is part of a natural progression of what Walker calls sleep degradation, influenced by three factors.

First, we have fewer hours of deep NREM sleep. Second, circadian rhythms shift for seniors, making us sleepier early in the evening and triggering waking up earlier in the morning. Third, frequent trips to the bathroom disrupt sleep.

However, Walker points to the dangers of sleep deficiency for seniors. Lower amounts of good quality sleep can lead to forgetfulness and decreased cognitive function. It can even lead to dementia and cause diseases.

The bathroom trips can lead to a greater risk of falling and fracturing bones. He also is honest when he says there are no quick fixes for these risks.

I did walk away with a few important suggestions:

What Not to Do

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine within 8 hours of bedtime. Alcohol may relax you but it actually can impair breathing and rob you of REM sleep.
  • Also, avoid naps after 3 p.m.
  • Do not exercise near bedtime.
  • Avoid sleep medications: drugs allow sleep but inhibit the deep sleep that we need. One exception is melatonin, an enzyme which lets the brain know that it’s time to sleep. It aids in falling asleep but does not keep you in that state.

What to Do

  • Aim for a minimum of 8 hours of sleep with a regular sleep/wake schedule.
  • Take a hot bath before bed. Cooling of the body after the bath is what aids falling asleep.
  • Sleep in a cool, dark, gadget-free bedroom.
  • Get outside in natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes daily. Aim for morning sunlight. Turn down lights before bedtime, avoiding blue LED light.
  • Share these ideas with younger people in our lives and encourage them to do their best to get 8 hours of sleep.

Some of the information was a bit concerning. Walker’s message suggests that modern society is fundamentally heading for a cliff due to lack of sleep.

However, as Guardian journalist Marc O’Connell wrote, “I suppose it’s churlish to take issue with the prose of a person who is trying to save you from an existence of exhaustion and misery, terminating in early death – a bit like grumbling about insufficient legroom in a life raft.”

Meanwhile, I will use these tips when I go to sleep tonight and aim to not be up awake at 3:30 a.m.!

What tips do you have for having a good night’s sleep? Have you tried any of them and have they worked? What is the reason you don’t get enough sleep? Please share in the comments below.

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