Change this one simple thing to revolutionise your life
And, even better, it won’t cost you a single penny.
It’s quite a grand claim. But it’s true.
Don’t worry, I am not going to start selling you some magic beans or Peruvian Snake Oil. The solution is easier than you think. It’s also a lot closer to home, too (unless you live in Peru).
And — the cherry on the cake — it’s absolutely free.
What is this magic, life changing elixir?
The book that kindled my sleep fascination
I am currently going through something of a revolution in my awareness of sleep.
For that, I have Matthew Walker’s 2017 book ‘Why We Sleep’ to thank for that.
It sounds a little cliched, but I have rarely read a book that left such an impression on me.
Such was my fascination, that it got to the point in which my ‘better half’ refused to stay in the same room with me whilst I read it.
I can hardly blame her. Listening to me mumble ‘hmmm’; ‘oh, right’; ‘that’s interesting’ after every other paragraph must have sounded a bit like being subjected to the world’s most repetitive (and uninspiring) audiobook.
Having now finished the book (alone- I might add), I was struck by two major realisations:
1) I know very little about something I will spend a third of my life doing.
2) I was woefully unaware of the impacts a lack of sleep has on you.
Not wanting to end my journey towards sleep enlightenment after finishing Walker’s book, I began doing some digging. I wanted to try and understand a little more about the ‘land of nod’.
The worrying trend of sleep
My brief foray into sleep made for some fascinating, intriguing, mind-bendingly complex and, at times, concerning reading.
Walker regularly makes the observation that humankind’s sleep quality and duration is diminishing. It didn’t take a great deal of searching to confirm this trend.
According to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, 1/3 of Adults in the USA do not get enough sleep (usually defined as anything fewer than seven hours per night) on a regular basis. In the UK, this number is around 1/4.
That’s a combined total of around 130 million people. In just two countries.
Indeed, with the advent of artificial light, and increased pressures from the workplace, gaining quality sleep of a healthy length is being increasingly seen as the exception, rather than the rule.
Stemming the flow
What follows is my attempt to reverse this worrying trend of diminishing sleep.
With the invaluable help of some of Matthew Walker’s most illuminating findings, plus my own (albeit less in-depth and significantly less experienced) readings on the power of sleep, I aim to convince you that a penny saved is most definitely a penny earned when it comes to sleep.
Poor sleep leads to poor learning
I am sure you don’t need me to tell you how important being able to learn is. If you do need convincing of its importance, check out this handy article I wrote on the topic of effective learning.
If you find yourself regularly revisiting the same bits of information — convinced that they are conspiring against you to abandon your head as soon as possible–the chances are you’re not getting enough sleep.
To illustrate the impact of lack of sleep on learning, Walker (pg. 153) points to a study he conducted in 2006.
In assessing students who pulled the obligatory ‘all nighter’ and stayed awake a full 24 hours before leaning, Walker found that those sleep deprived students were able to learn 40% less information than those students who were well rested.
This is just one example. Walker’s book is littered with other such studies. Diverse and interesting though they are, they all point to the same conclusion. Sleeping well, and consistently so, will lead to more effective learning.
Broadening the net beyond the book, Walker’s claims are easily reinforced. It is well documented that a healthy sleep regime is linked to more effective learning.
In getting good quality shut eye, sleeping helps embed all of our ‘learning’ from the day into our long term memory. It is hard to overstate how crucial this is in helping us retention both more information and for a longer period of time.
On the other hand, deprive someone of sleep and you’ll similarly strip them of their ability to learn effectively.
The curse of the weekend ‘tipple’
If you need further evidence of the impact sleep has on learning, things get even more interesting when you throw alcohol into the equation.
You may be inclined to think that alcohol aids sleep. After drifting off on the sofa following a glass of wine on more than one occasion, I know I was certainly under that same impression.
As a depressant, alcohol can certainly lull you into slumber.
However, although you may appear to all the world like you’re sound asleep (and despite your ‘better half’ filming you snoring with drool coming out of your mouth), your brain is telling a different story.
Putting it simply, alcohol-induced sleep will decimate the amount of REM sleep you obtain. With crucial implications on the transportation of memories into that crucial brain region that determines long term storage of information.
Don’t just take my word for it
Ever the sleep enlightener, Walker (pg. 271) points to a fascinating study examining the relationship between alcohol consumption, sleep, and learning.
A series of individuals were tasked with learning a set of grammatical rules for a language created purely for the experiment.
After learning these devised rules, participants were split into three groups:
- The first group were allowed natural, uninterrupted sleep from learning until testing.
- The second group were given a body-mass appropriate dosage of alcohol on the first night after learning.
- The third group were given a similarly measured amount of alcohol on the third night after learning.
Crucially, all were tested a week later to see how much of these grammatical ‘rules’ they had retained.
The findings were pretty conclusive.
Sleep as the ‘great rememberer’
Although the individuals who had their quota of normal sleep each night could remember everything they had learnt the week before, the same could not be said of the groups who had got drunk before going to bed.
Both groups who had taken alcohol before sleeping — regardless of whether it was on the first or third nights– ‘lost’ approximately 40% of the information they had previously learnt.
Upon reading this, I was pretty surprised. I could understand how drinking the night you had learnt something could squeeze it out of your brain.
The fact that you could lose just as much three days later. Well…let’s just say I need to re-evaluate my weekend alcohol consumption!
Sleeping well improves concentration.
In illustrating the link between sleep and concentration, Walker points to a fascinating study by David Dinges (a summary of which can be found here).
Walker outlines how participants were tasked with hitting a light on a screen within a particular time frame. This activity was carried out for 10 minutes every day for 14 days.
As is the case with a lot of these studies, there were a few test groups:
- The first were kept awake for 72 hours straight (at the end of which I would most likely resemble a jellied eel);
- The second had 4 hours sleep per night;
- The third had 6 hours sleep per night;
- The fourth (lucky group) had a full, 8 hours of sleep per night.
The big reveal…
As I’m sure you’ll not be surprised, the group with 8 hours of sleep were able to maintain the same standard of concentration on the 10 minute test. Right across the whole 14 days.
However, after just six nights, the group on 4 hours’ sleep displayed the same reaction times as group 1 did after being awake for 24 hours.
It didn’t stop there, though. After 11 days, the ‘4 hour group’ shared reaction times with those who hadn’t slept for 48 hours.
Even the group with 6 hours of sleep (which, on average, 7% of working age people in the UK obtain each night) demonstrated a similarly worrying trend.
After only 10 days (a week and a half) of sleeping 6 hours a night, participants demonstrated the equivalent levels of concentration as those who had been awake for a full 24 hours straight.
Sleeping leads to improved health
Not wanting to sound too morbid but Walker regularly highlights the link between lack of sleep and death.
Indeed, at one point mid-read — having experienced a bad night’s sleep the previous night— I was convinced I was going to be struck down from some horrific illness.
Again, to put it bluntly, if you think of most illnesses or ailments and, according to ‘Why We Sleep’, the likelihood of you contracting it increases when sleep deprived.
Some are more obvious (and less contested) than others. For example, the link between stress and sleep is well documented, as is that between sleep duration and obesity.
Not so evident, however, is the association between sleep and diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
True, there is some controversy on this account (Chen et al., 2018). Further work is likely needed to conclusively confirm the strength of the relationship. That being said, there is compelling evidence to suggest that cancer cells spread more rapidly in sleep deprived individuals.
Walker, at any rate, is pretty unequivocal on his stance. So too on the causal link between sleep and type-2 diabetes. Here a disease that costs billions of dollars every year and will shave, on average, 10 years from your life is presented by Walker as being drastically reduced in prevalence with a more healthy sleep life.
Sleep, it seems, truly is the best medicine.
It’s not just about your own health, though…
Sleep can even help you save others, too.
One of the top 10 causes of deaths globally, the WHO estimate that 1.3 million people each year tragically lose their lives due to road traffic collisions. So prevalent is this issue that, in the US, it is the leading cause of death amongst teenagers.
In case you haven’t already guessed it, your chances of being involved in a collision are massively impacted by the amount of sleep you have.
Sleep less than four hours a night and, according to a Study by Brian Teft in 2018, you can be expected to have a 15 times increase in likelihood of being involved in a road traffic collision.
Even getting 6 hours of sleep is enough to see a the likelihood increase by 1.3 times.
All through a lack of good quality sleep.
Sleep increases immunisation success.
My last point is, all things considered, pretty topical!
With the world currently in the midst of the largest vaccination programme known to humankind it makes sense to end by drawing your attention to the link between sleep and vaccine efficacy.
A recent study involving 125 people found that those sleeping, on average, fewer than 6 hours per night were 11.5 times more likely to be unprotected from a hepatitis B vaccine.
Yes, the study sample was small. Likely more work is necessary. However, Walker (pg. 182) is similarly certain of the link between sleep and the efficiency of vaccines. Antibody reaction, and thus resistance, is far more effective for those who sleep well.
So, if you want to go into a certain Covid-19 vaccine with the greatest chance of long-term protection, get a good night’s sleep first!
The power of sleep: convinced?
Here we go, then, the extent of my sleep education thus far.
I hope you found some of these examples interesting. I also hope that this article goes in some way to convince you that a good night’s sleep is something to be cherished.
It goes without saying that I am incredibly indebted to Matthew Walker’s book ‘Why We Sleep’ for opening my eyes to the power of a good night’s sleep.
Indeed, I have barely scratched the surface, and would wholeheartedly encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Walker’s book if you need further convincing.
In the meantime, though, you’d better go and set your alarm! Got to get that 8 hours…
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