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The Imperative of Sleep for Brain and Body

The Imperative of Sleep for Brain and Body

Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep, is an eye-opener on many levels. Reading it is probably a better prescription for bodily and mental health than a trip to the doctor, going on a diet, or running around the block to get going on good health. Walker, a PhD, is Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, and he starts out with this bit of perspective: “No matter what vantage point you take, sleep would appear to be the most foolish of biological phenomena. When you are asleep, you cannot gather food. You cannot socialize. You cannot find a mate and reproduce.  You cannot nurture or protect your offspring. Worse still, sleep leaves you vulnerable to predation. Sleep is surely one of the most puzzling of all human behaviors.”

Yet, Walker notes that sleep prevails across the entire animal kingdom and its “perseverance through evolution means there must be  tremendous benefits that far outweigh all of the obvious hazards and detriments.” Indeed, those listed benefits fairly blew me away, which is why I’m sharing this. He says and proves: There is not one major organ within the body or process within the brain that isn’t enhanced by sleep or impaired when we don’t get enough.

“Within the brain, sleep enriches a diversity of functions including our ability to learn, memorize, make logical decisions and choices… allowing us to navigate next-day social and psychological challenges with cool-headed composure.”  I was impressed with certain surprising relationships of sleep to our daily actions: “Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer… determining whether you will develop Alzheimer’s disease.. increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and  brittle setting  you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure … and contributes to depression, anxiety and suicidality.” As if all this were not alarming enough, he gives us another whopper, e.g. you eat more when you’re tired from too little sleep.

I haven’t finished reading the book, so I’m sure he’ll get to the part of how to fix it so you can sleep, without the harmful effects of sleep aids. Or how not to panic after reading about the vital things that sleep accomplishes in the third of your life that you lie there doing it (or trying to). I predict you’d lose sleep just thinking about that. Because of the peril of this, I will share my behaviors in the hope that this might help calm such panic. I read – this of course, we all do – until the eyes get sleepy. That, by the way can be in the middle of a paragraph, sentence or word. (Do not try to get to the end of the chapter; writers work hard to make that the last place you close the book.) The eyes have it. When your eyes begin shutting like a Venetian blind and you no longer make sense of the sentence in front of  you, turn out that light and curl up under the covers. An hour later, if you are still awake, take a coated aspirin or Advil (just one), read a bit more and about a half hour later that will do it. Perhaps readers on this site can share their own tips.

Because we are all creative in one way or another, Walker’s information about dreaming struck me as notable:” Dreaming provides “a consoling neurochemical bath that mollifies painful memories and a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity.”

I hope the intensity of this blog doesn’t put you to sleep. But wait …. maybe it will. If so, wishing you pleasant dreams.

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