Review of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew P. Walker


Given my husband’s diagnosis of severe sleep apnea and the difference the treatment from the sleep clinic has made to all aspects of his life, when I saw this book was available on NetGalley, I immediately requested it.

Sleep is one of the most important but least understood aspects of our life, wellness, and longevity. Until very recently, science had no answer to the question of why we sleep, or what good it served, or why we suffer such devastating health consequences when we don’t sleep. Compared to the other basic drives in life—eating, drinking, and reproducing—the purpose of sleep remained elusive. An explosion of scientific discoveries in the last twenty years has shed new light on this fundamental aspect of our lives. Now, preeminent neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker gives us a new understanding of the vital importance of sleep and dreaming. Within the brain, sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. It recalibrates our emotions, restocks our immune system, fine-tunes our metabolism, and regulates our appetite. Dreaming mollifies painful memories and creates a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge to inspire creativity.

Walker answers important questions about sleep: how do caffeine and alcohol affect sleep? What really happens during REM sleep? Why do our sleep patterns change across a lifetime? How do common sleep aids affect us and can they do long-term damage? Charting cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, and synthesizing decades of research and clinical practice, Walker explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood, and energy levels; regulate hormones; prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes; slow the effects of aging; increase longevity; enhance the education and lifespan of our children, and boost the efficiency, success, and productivity of our businesses. Clear-eyed, fascinating, and accessible, Why We Sleep is a crucial and illuminating book.

Normally I don’t include all the blurb, as it tends to give too much away. However, in this case I feel it nicely sums up exactly what this book is about. This was not a comfortable read. My husband’s snoring used to be epic – not only was it shredding his ability to sleep deeply, it also properly mucked up my sleep, too. It is still a mess and has been for a number of years. I have become accustomed to living reasonably happily on somewhere between four and five hours of sleep a night, and therefore it came as a very nasty shock to discover that I am probably compromising my immune system as well, as increasing my risk factor of incurring a range of nasty illnesses including Alzheimer’s and cancer.

However, the good news is that in addition to providing the scientific reasons why sleep is so important to us, Walker also provides a range of suggestions and tips so that those of us with really poor sleep hygiene have a chance to sort ourselves out. If you are a snorer, or sleep next one, find it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep for the recommended eight to nine hours a night, then you need to read this book.

33 responses »

  1. I don’t normally read nonfiction, mostly because I just don’t make time for it like I do with reading fiction and poetry. But this is one I’d definitely add to my collection. It’s the kind of topic I like learning about because it’s not only fascinating to begin with, but it’s also so important to our overall health and well-being. Especially since I know it from experience. If I go too many nights without getting enough sleep, I can make myself physically ill. :/

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book with us, Sarah!

    • Judging by what Walker is saying, you may well find that not only can you make yourself physically ill, it may well be affecting your mental health, too, Sara. This stuff is a big deal – I just wish I could get my own sleep patterns sorted out, but right now it just isn’t happening… Oh well – maybe when Life isn’t quite so hectic!

      • That wouldn’t surprise me. My thoughts are usually a lot clearer when I’ve had a good night’s (or several good nights’ worth of) sleep. Speaking of which, I’m hoping to get to bed earlier than usual tonight. We changed our clocks last weekend because of Daylight Savings Time (moving ahead one hour – I’m not sure if that happens in the UK?). I always have trouble adjusting to that change… but I just haven’t gotten around to adjusting my schedule to make an early bedtime happen. Tonight, though. It’s happening.

        I hope you’re able to find a solution for your sleep habits soon, Sarah.

      • Oh yes, we also have Summer Time and our clocks move forward next weekend – oh joy… I don’t like it much, either. And yes – getting my sleep sorted out would be a good idea. It’s just finding the time…

  2. I find a swift dig to the ribs helps! 😀

    But in all seriousness this sounds like a really interesting read – it’s amazing that so much remains unknown about something that takes up such an awful lot of our lives!!

    I hope it brings both you and your husband a little more sleep!

    • Fortunately my husband’s issues have been sorted out – he was suffering from severe sleep apnea, which not only was affecting his sleep but well on the way to causing diabetes and he was also on the verge of losing his job… He now wears a mask which has turned his life around – I cannot get over how much more energy he now has, it’s lovely:). Sadly though, my sleep patterns are still a major mess…

      • I’m glad to hear it’s made such a difference – it must be such a relief to you both! And hopefully it means you can take the time to put yourself back in order. After all, as much as we want extra hours to read our books it does require a decent amount of sleep!!

      • Largely my choice, I might add. No one knocked on my door and clamoured for yet another science fiction trilogy or fantasy novel to be added to the world’s canon…:)

      • Hm… and here’s the catch – I don’t seem to need all that much sleep (though Matthew Walker would say differently) and function without too much problem as I am. So it’s difficult to keep the necessary alterations in place!

  3. Oy, Bo’s a horrible snorer, too, so I’ve been living on 4-5 hours for years. Even as a kid, though, I slept terribly, and then motherhood came along and I just stopped sleeping more than 3 hours in a row.
    I’m probably doomed. Sigh…

    • Oh, I certainly felt doomed! If Bo does that stopping-snoring-choking-thing do get him checked out. J was certainly headed for major health issues and to my shame, I put up with it without realising how dangerous it was… It was only when he was at risk of losing his job that we got it sorted.

      • Gosh, I worry about this a lot, especially when he gets sick like he did this month. But he’s stubborn to blazes about it, despite family and friends with similar issues telling him to get tested for sleep apnea so he can get the right treatment. 😦

      • Well, J got to a point when he couldn’t work and he really didn’t have sufficient energy for the grandchildren, either. It’s lovely watching him now interact with them being all sparky and fun, again. Would that reach him, do you think?

      • I had hoped the kids would help–I mean, Blondie’s 7, the boys 5. He hates taking them out because he *can’t* run after them if they bolt. But it’s easier to not do what’s necessary–losing weight more than anything–and just cope. 😦

      • Yes… Himself finds losing weight next to impossible, but he also does shift work, moving from early mornings to late nights alternate weeks so his circadian rhythms are shot to Mars and back… It makes losing weight incredibly difficult, apparently.

      • Oh gosh, yes. That happened to Bo when we lived in Michigan. He’d work swing shift one week, nights the next…horrible. So thankful we moved back to Wisconsin, where he’s finally on dayshift. Granted, his commute to Milwaukee’s a beast, but for the 9-5 hours and weekends free? Worth it. So here’s hoping we can make this work to a healthier lifestyle, too. Like you said, without a steady rhythm, it’s pretty damn hard control one’s hunger.

      • And I think it takes a LOT longer to recover from this kind of stuff than anyone officially claims. The nice lady at the Sleep Clinic said that John should be back to full steam ahead after 3 months – it has taken a year, and I still think he still has a way to go.

  4. That sounds like a very informative read! That does sound scary how little sleep can increase your risk for some things, but that’s nice the book also contains a lot of solutions and tips for sleeping better.
    I need to have 9,5-10 hours a sleep each night. I always have needed a lot of sleep and often wish I could do with less sleep, but it always impacts my productivity, mood and how I feel when I sleep less, so I just make sure I sleep enough. Although I heard that it also varies from person to person how much sleep someone needs and some people have enough sleep with less hours.

    • Oh no – you are spot on with your sleep cycle and Matthew Walker claims that MOST of us need between 8-9 hours of sleep a night and a fair few need more. Those of us that don’t are not only in denial, but also are endangering our mental and physical health. His statistics are terrifying for someone like me…

    • Oh I would – it’s very well written and has some statistics that will probably horrify you if your sleep patterns (or lack of them) are anything like mine.

  5. This book sounds like a very good read. I’m glad that it offered you some insights as well, and hope that if you can follow its suggestions, you’ll see some improvement to your health. (No flu this upcoming season!)
    I used to sleep 4-5h a night as well, a result of the long distance relationship I had, though I did try to “catch up” during weekends, which likely wasn’t healthy either. Ever since I’m getting 6-8h a night, I’m in a much better form. But that’s unrelated to your review which – of course – got me interested in the book. 🙂

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