Insomnia, you say?

tl;dr Matthew Walker (sleepdiplomat@) unveils a surge of sleep science you probably haven’t heard before.

Last Monday, Matthew Walker, professor of Neuroscience at UC Berkeley and Sleep Scientist at Google, sat down with Google President, Matt Brittin, in candid conversation about sleep. In one hour, Walker traversed sizable ground: the importance of sleep (ie side effects of undersleeping), sleeping problems, and ways to improve sleep. He provocatively refers to undersleeping as ‘the new smoking’ because it’s such an under-recognized phenomenon on institutional, societal, and individual levels. The average doctor has 2 hours of sleep education (Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School). How much could we really know about sleep? Matthew Walker, you’ve got my attention.

I’m a complicated sleeper. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sensitive relationship to sleep—mostly the falling asleep part. I was a baby with colic who couldn’t sleep. I was the last friend to painfully drift off alone at sleepovers. And today, I still accept that I probably won’t sleep as well when I’m away from my own bed. When the perfect storm hits, the anticipatory anxiety rears its head and the vicious cycle begins. A good night’s sleep can often feel like a lottery, an innate human behavior that feels stupidly inaccessible.

If you’re in a cycle of bracing for impact—laying awake in bed or over-regulating energy and sleep with coffee/substances—there’s hope. But before we get ahead of ourselves, you should know..

The caustic consequences when you’re underslept:

  • <7-9 hours – the brain is 40% deficient in its ability to lay down new memory traces (and keep them)
  • <7-9 hours – the amygdala, the central stress response center of the brain, is 60% more reactive; this significantly broadens the gamut of emotions you’re bound to experience in a day
  • <7-9 hours – if dieting, 70% of weight lost will come from lean muscle instead of from fat
  • ≤5 hours – you’re 400% more likely to catch a cold than if you were getting ~8 hours of shut-eye
  • ≤5-6 hours – after one week of undersleeping at this rate, a flu shot would render ineffective because the body wouldn’t be able to produce a sufficient immune response to the antigen

These are only a few near-term examples. The compounded effects are devastating. Insufficient sleep is the most significant lifestyle factor determining if you’ll develop Alzheimer’s. But the cost doesn’t stop at health. Majority of waking hours are spent towards making our future beds. Having healthy mental faculties when the time comes to enjoy 401K and long-term investments seems favorable, right? Also notable is the cash flow that accompanies sleep debt; we’re more likely to spend money on coffee, fast food, under-eye concealer, etc..

Your significant other and boss prefer well-slept you, too. When I’m not feeling lousy and drowsy, I am more likely to offer meaningful real-time feedback to colleagues and am also in a better place to receive and iterate on feedback. The same applies to personal relationships, typically more emotionally dense terrain, that demand higher cognitive signaling and interpretation.

We get it. We’ve got issues.

So how do we not suck so badly at sleep? Walker first divides sleep debt issues into two categories—(1) lack of opportunity to sleep and (2) problems with sleeping (environment, diet, insomnia, sleep apnea, anxiety, depression, etc.). The opportunity to sleep really narrows in on how much one wants to / is in a position to advocate for sleep. But in regards to the latter category… Insomnia rates in developed nations are about 10-15%, while for hunter gatherer tribes whose lives haven’t changed in thousands of years, it’s 1-2%. I’m thinking what you’re thinking—what’s all of this insomnia about? To put it simply, there’s more “noise” in developed worlds that causes disruption. To name a few:

  • Don’t make light of light. Blue light, specifically. You probably went to sleep last night with some shape of an electronic under your nose, which means these sneaky wavelengths got all up in your system. Blue light exposure until bedtime not only delays the release of melatonin by 3 hours, but ultimately decreases the amount of melatonin you’ll release by 50%. Far beyond its natural power in helping us fall asleep, melatonin plays an important role in maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm. Science on blue light here, here, and here.  
    • Recommended actions:
      • Stop using electronics ~2 hours before bedtime
      • Use the nightshift setting on devices (w/ brightness turned all the way down)
      • Invest in blue-light blocking glasses during nighttime use of electronics (do your research on % of wavelength blockage)
  • It’s called morning joe for a reason. Here is some simple math to understand the cost of an afternoon caffeine boost. Enjoying a cup of coffee at 12pm means half of the caffeine consumed will be gone by 6 pm (a 6-hour half-life), but a non-trivial 25% will still be swirling in your brain at midnight.
    • Recommended action: Walker suggests to stop drinking caffeine 16 hours before bed. If you think this sounds impossible for a reason, well…
  • Alcohol doesn’t fragment just your thoughts. Your sleep, too! This one is tricky, because while it can feel soporific (causing or tending to cause sleep), it really plays with quality of sleep. Whether or not alcohol markedly impacts your sleep, research shows a 20% reduction in deep sleep on nights you booze. If that’s not real enough for you—add 20-25 years to your age. That’s the amount of time it will take to naturally drop your deep sleep by 20% due to aging.
    • Recommended action: Cut out alcohol / drink deliberately.
  • Anxious hot spots in the bedroom can keep us up at night. *Beep, beep, (hovers hand over cell phone on nightstand) beep-beep-beep-beep-beep*. We’re associative creatures, which means working in bed or sleeping next to a device changes how we operate (sleep).
    • Recommended action: De-tech your bedroom. And if that’s too hard, swap the nightstand outlet for a different wall.
  • Know your chronotype. Everyone’s body has an innate rhythm of functions, “a circadian rhythym” (one of the first dominos in queue being sleep). Tweaking some habits around your tendencies could optimize more than just your sleep, like mood, performance, etc.
    • Recommended action: Here is a quick quiz you can take to understand how chronotypes work and a bit about your own.

I shared the chosen examples because these are what have helped improve my own access to sleep (and overall relationship to sleep) over the past two weeks. But because sleep isn’t one size fits all, I’ve listed the below resources for your own embarkation.

Like most things, the impact goes beyond you and me. Increasing our own access to sleep provides more presence and opportunity to increase access to resources that, unlike sleep, aren’t at our own disposal. “Noise” that may be contributing to a lack of sleep is a byproduct of living in a bountifully resourced environment that in the end, is really an invitation to do good.

Thanks to Matthew Walker *hat tip* for scratching his head over sleep for us—all we need to do is get some.


“Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker – Amazon Kindle $13.99

Matthew Walker & Joe Rogan

Juxtaposed to my recent post on how deliberate thinking can change gene expression—undersleeping also changes the way your genes are expressed (1:29:11). Also, studies show that 50% our brain sleeps differently when we’re outside of our routine sleep ecosystem. Science ftw.

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