Saturday, September 19, 2020
Matthew Walker Says Sleep Could Be the Preventative Tool We’ve Been Neglecting
Monday, August 24, 2020


Zzzzzzzzs. They could be a formidable tool to stem the rising suicide rate and to prevent psychiatric illness.

“It may not be that psychiatric problems are causing sleep problems but that sleep is impacting psychiatric illness,” Dr. Matthew Walker told those attending Sun Valley Wellness Virtual this weekend.

“Typically, we see sleep problems before psychiatric problems—sleep is the smoke before the fire,” he added. “We need to pay more attention to sleep as a diagnostic tool, sleep as a treatment tool. Could it be a preventative treatment?”

Walker spoke of the connection between sleep and mental health and Alzheimer’s Disease as part of a 90-minute presentation of the Sun Valley Wellness Festival. Given the virtual nature of this year’s conference, people can still hear what Walker and other speakers have to say between now and Sept 7 by going to

Walker, author of the New York Times bestselling book “Why We Sleep,” is the founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California-Berkeley. There, he and others are studying sleep and aging, sleep and mental health, sleep deprivation’s effect on the immune system, sleep and genes and sleep and athletic performance using such tools as imaging and genetic and cardiovascular testing.

Walker’s 23-year love affair with the science of sleep began when he realized that different types of dementia seemed to attack some of the sleep centers in the brain.

“I realized we should be measuring brain activity while asleep, not just while awake--that sleep disruption could be a warning signal,” he said.

We get less sleep as we age, and memory can get a little sketchy, as well, noted Walker. People who sleep less than six hours a night are more likely to go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease in their 60s and 70s as toxic proteins build up in their brain.

But the brain has a sewage system, aka a cleansing system, that kicks into high gear during sleep.

“Sleep helps us wash away these amyloid proteins, Walker said. “If you’re not getting enough sleep at night, you’re not getting the full power cleanse.”

One or two nights of inadequate sleep won’t be a problem, but night after night will, he added.

Patients who were successfully treated for sleep apnea pushed back the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease by up to 15 years compared with their counterparts who were not treated, Walker said. It’s possible that doctors may be able to use brain stimulation technology, sending small amounts of voltage into brain, to double the amount of memory in young people and delay onset of Alzheimer’s in older people.

Sleep helps memory in three ways, he said.

  • It prepares the brain to soak up information and imprint memories. Brains that don’t get enough rest are like a wet sponge that won’t absorb anymore.
  • Sleep helps to etch new memories or facts into the brain.
  • And sleep helps the brain connect new memories with past facts or memories.

    “You’re never too late to start sleeping better,” Walker said. “But you can’t put sleep back In the bank.”

    People who are sleep deprived tend to snap, reacting emotionally and irrationally to something that triggers them, Walker continued. This is because the prefrontal cortex—the CEO of the brain—gets shut off or goes off line when a person gets too little sleep, disrupting the regulatory nature of the brain.

    Researchers don’t know a lot yet about the lingering sleep disruptions that have affected some of those with COVID. But Walker says sleep has changed in three ways during the pandemic:

  • Some people are getting more sleep because they’re no longer commuting or having to get kids off to school
  • Some are losing sleep due to anxiety over their job or COVID.
  • People are dreaming more, in part because they’re sleeping later when the REM stage that is associated with dreaming takes place. That’s good, Walker added, because when emotions become more challenging, you need more REM sleep.

    No major organ in the body goes unimpaired when you don’t get enough sleep, Walker said.

    “We once thought sleep was simply something to cure sleepiness. But that’s like saying we eat because we’re hungry—it doesn’t tell us anything about what nutrition does for us,” he said.

    Every major disease has links to poor sleep, and many of them are casual. But sleep has been the neglected stepsister to nutrition and exercise.

    “When we have a problem like hypertension, we often say we need to adjust our diet or exercise more. But sleep has more weight than exercise or diet. Sleep is the foundation on which diet and exercise sit,” he said. “Sleep is also the single most effective thing to reset the brain each day. The shorter our sleep, the shorter our life.”

    So, how can we sleep better?

  • Not with alcohol. It fragments our sleep, making us wake up more frequently through the night so the next morning we don’t feel rested. And it disrupts our REM sleep.

    “My advice is to go to the pub in the morning so it’s out of our system by evening,” Walker said. “As a health professional, I would not really advocate that. But life is to be lived. Every now and then, it’s fine to have a drink in the evening.”

  • Limit that cuppajoe to the morning. Fifty percent of the caffeine remains in your system after five or six hours. A quarter remains in the system after 10 hours.
  • Marijuana is often used as a sleep aid but it also decreases REM sleep. And it quickly becomes addictive when it comes to sleep. If you detox, you go through severe insomnia.
  • CBD may be better but data is lacking.
  • Sex can help some people get to sleep.
  • Drop your core body temperature by 2 degrees Fahrenheit to fall asleep. A room that’s too cold takes you in the right direction. Hot baths before bed help because your body heat comes to the surface and your core body temperature drops.
  • Naps are a double-edged sword. They can benefit memory. But the longer you’re awake during the day, the more sleepiness you build up. Naps are like a pressure valve, releasing some of that sleepiness so it may be harder to sleep come night.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
  • Sleep in a darkened room and dim the lights in the hour before bed.
  • Don’t stay in bed if you can’t get to sleep within 25 minutes.

“Often, people tell me they fall asleep on the couch, then can’t get to sleep in bed. That’s because bed has become a trigger for being awake,” Walker said. “If you can’t get to sleep, get up. If you don’t, your brain will learn that bed is a place to stay awake. You don’t sit at the table waiting to get hungry; why would you stay in bed waiting to get sleepy? If you do stay, try meditation.”


Sleep is divided into four stages, with stages three and four the deep restorative stages. Stage Three offers deep sleep, which aids our cardiovascular system, helping to decrease heart rate and blood pressure. Stage Four is REM, or the Rapid Eye Movement Stage, which is critical for creativity and emotional first aid.

“Like a nocturnal soothing balm, it takes the rough edges off the jagged parts of the day,” said Walker.

He quoted Charlotte Bronte who once said, “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.” “The best bridge tween despair and hope is a good night’s sleep,” he added.

We need all four stages of sleep, Walker said.

But, if someone who typically sleeps eight hours a night wakes up two hours early to catch a plane, they lose 25 percent of their total sleep and between 70 and 90 percent of their REM sleep.

Walker said he wears an Oura sleep-tracing ring to measure his sleep. Such tracking devices can be 75 percent accurate in measuring total amount of sleep.


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