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Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

In the featured video, professor Matthew Walker, Ph.D., founder and director of the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science and author of the book "Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams," shares the latest discoveries about sleep and how it impacts virtually every area of your physical and mental health.

I read Walker’s book last fall, and share his view that sleep is profoundly important — even more important than diet and exercise. I say this because diet and exercise will have minimal effects on your body if you are constantly exhausted and it is unlikely you will have the energy to eat well or exercise if you are always tired. Beyond that, sleeplessness has been shown to contribute to chronic illnesses such as dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

In his book, Walker suggests insomnia is “one of the most pressing and prevalent medical issues facing modern society,” yet it is rarely acted on in ways reflecting its importance. He notes the “sleep aid” industry, encompassing prescription sleeping pills and over-the-counter sleep medications, is a $30 billion-a-year industry in the U.S.

Sadly, desperate people are putting money toward drugs that have not only been shown to be ineffective for solving sleep problems, but also are known to increase your risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Most adults need at least eight hours of high-quality sleep a night, and children and teenagers even more. The reality is about 1 in 3 Americans gets less than seven hours of sleep a night and more than 83 million adults in the U.S. are sleep-deprived.1,2

While losing an hour or two of sleep may not seem like a big deal, Walker presents data suggesting even a single night of poor sleep can have devastating consequences. If you have not yet prioritized proper sleep as one of the nonnegotiables in your life, Walker’s research may be the impetus to move you in that direction.

Sleep-Deprived Drivers More Dangerous Than Those Under the Influence

With respect to sleep deprivation and auto accidents, Walker speaks passionately about this subject in his book. He says one person dies every hour in the U.S. due to a fatigue-related error, and vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined. If you drink alcohol or take medications that make you sleepy and then drive, you are exponentially increasing your risk of suffering a crash, injury or death due to drowsy driving. States Walker:

“This coming week, more than 2 million people in the U.S. will fall asleep while driving their motor vehicle. That’s more than 250,000 every day, with more such events during the week than on weekends, for obvious reasons. More than 56 million Americans admit to struggling to stay awake at the wheel of a car each month. As a result, 1.2 million accidents are caused by sleepiness each year in the U.S.”

Drivers of cars are not alone in threatening the safety of our roadways. Walker suggests drowsy truckers may be even more dangerous, mainly because approximately 80 percent of truck drivers in the U.S. are overweight and 50 percent are clinically obese, putting them at risk of sleep apnea. He says:

“[These health conditions] place truck drivers at a far, far higher risk of a disorder called sleep apnea, commonly associated with heavy snoring, which causes chronic, severe sleep deprivation. As a result, these truck drivers are 200 to 500 percent more likely to be involved in a traffic accident. And when a truck driver loses his or her life in a drowsy-driving crash, they will, on average, take 4.5 other lives with them.”

When you drive on less than five hours of sleep, you are 4.3 times more likely to be involved in a crash than a well-rested driver; on just four hours of sleep, your risk of crashing is 11.5 times higher.3 Beyond car crashes, studies suggest poor sleep is related to many other health conditions that can also shorten your life. In his book, Walker states:

“[T]here are more than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies that have tracked millions of people over many decades, all of which report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations — those that are crippling health care systems, such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes and cancer — all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep.”

Lack of Sleep Does Damage to Your Brain

While it’s common to experience a certain amount of “brain fog” after a poor night’s sleep, the damage to your brain from chronic lack of sleep is not something you can address simply by drinking more coffee or taking a nap midday. Walker cites the following brain-related effects from lack of sleep:

  • Due to your hippocampus shutting down, you will experience a 40 percent deficit in your brain with respect to its ability to make new memories
  • Your emotional and mental health becomes destabilized because the emotional circuits in your brain become hyperactive and irrational due to lack of sleep
  • Your amygdala, one of your brain’s centerpiece regions for generating strong emotional reactions, including negative ones, becomes about 60 percent more reactive than usual, resulting in increased emotional intensity and volatility

Walker presents an aspect even more concerning to your brain with respect to poor sleep and that is the belief it may be a contributing factor to numerous psychiatric conditions. He states: “We are now finding significant links between sleep disruption and depression, anxiety (including post-traumatic stress disorder), schizophrenia and, tragically, suicide as well. In fact, we cannot find a single psychiatric condition in which [the subject’s] sleep is normal.”

Furthermore, Walker emphasizes that too little sleep during your adult life span significantly raises your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. This is so because amyloid-beta deposits that would normally be cleaned out of your brain nightly during deep sleep instead accumulate as plaques and kill off surrounding cells.

This waste-removal system has been dubbed the glymphatic system and it gets into your brain by piggybacking on blood vessels. By pumping cerebral spinal fluid through your brain's tissues, your glymphatic system flushes waste from your brain back into your circulatory system and onto your liver for elimination. 

Because your glymphatic system ramps up its activity during sleep, when you don’t get enough sleep, the damaging plaques build up, attack and degrade certain regions of your brain. Walker notes a brain affected by Alzheimer’s has lost most of its ability to remove the amyloid-beta waste products, mainly because it is caught in a vicious cycle: more amyloid, less deep sleep; less deep sleep, more amyloid.

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