Firstly, let me ask you this, if I asked you to list five ways you could improve your overall physical health, would sleep be on that list? If not, maybe it’s time we brought to your attention the importance of sleep. “Sleep, unfortunately, is not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a non-negotiable biological necessity” (Matt Walker, 2019).
A recent TED talk by Sleep Scientist Matt Walker “Sleep is your Superpower” talks about the importance of quality sleep and how it can impact your learning, memory, immune system and many more serious issues.
In the 21st century we have come to see sleeping as lazy, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. Walker argues that it’s time we stop thinking that needing sleep is a sign of weakness or laziness. Sleep is not optional, and we can’t just “catch up” on sleep. “It is your life-support system, and it is Mother Nature's best effort yet at immortality. And the decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our wellness, even the safety and the education of our children. It's a silent sleep loss epidemic, and it's fast becoming one of the greatest public health challenges that we face in the 21st century”.
Walker starts off by mentioning that as we age, we begin sleeping less, and that lack of sleep is said to be ageing a man by a decade. There are many possible explanations for these changes. One being that older adults sometimes produce less melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep not only helps refresh and restore your brain and organ systems but it also regulates important hormones in your body, including fertility related hormones.
The brain/our memories
Walker then moves on to discuss how sleep and quality sleep have been scientifically proven to inter-relate to the functioning of our brain, body, learning and memory. For example, sleep prepares your brain to “soak up” new information. This will directly affect people who stay up all night ,for example to study, because the brain needs that sleep to soak up information. Matt Walker did a study between people who had been sleep deprived and those who had not. These results showed that when you compare the two different groups, 40% deficit in the ability of the brain to make new memories without sleep. To put that into context, it would be the difference in a child acing an exam versus failing.
This also has something to do with a part of our brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus, as Walker described it, is almost like the “information box” of your brain. When sleep deprived, that memory box shuts down and you may find you can’t commit new experiences to memory. He explains we need sleep after learning to essentially hit the save button on those new memories. But you also need sleep before learning to actually prepare the brain.
As we get older our learning and memory abilities begin to fade and decline. Matt Walker discovered that “disruption of deep sleep is an underappreciated factor that is contributing to cognitive decline or memory decline in aging, and in Alzheimer's disease”.
I think it’s safe to say a lot of us need to start prioritising sleep. Here are two easy tips to improve your quantity and quality of sleep.
First - you need to be regulating your sleeping pattern. Everyday, including weekends, you should be going to bed and waking up at the same time. Further to this, you also need to be associating the bedroom with sleep and only sleep. If you’re struggling to sleep don’t lay in bed, then that association with sleep in the bedroom can be lost. Get out of bed. “You wouldn’t sit at the dinner table waiting to get hungry, so why lay in bed waiting to get tired,” Walker explained.
Second - the temperature of your sleep environment. Your body temperature needs to drop to fall asleep and then stay asleep. The optimal sleep temperature for most people will be around 18 degrees Celsius. Take that first step in the right direction by taking a look at your sleep environment and how you can improve it. You can find our previous blog post here… on the subject.
If you’re interested in a more in-depth conversation, find the link below to sleep scientist Matt Walker’s TED talk.