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World Sleep Day: Meet Matthew Walker, the man who can make you (sleep) better in bed


This interview originally came out in 2018:

Matthew Walker is probably one of the most influential people on the planet. The professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California in Berkeley has spent the past two decades studying sleep. Now he’s written a book about it.

Why We Sleep, which came out last September, is a gripping account of why we sleep, why we dream, what happens to our brains when we are not awake and — crucially — how long-term sleep deprivation is killing us. Yes, killing us.

Given that two-thirds of the adult population in the developed world consistently fail to get enough kip — enough being seven to eight hours a night — Walker’s work couldn’t be more timely.

In fact, the book became a bestseller the moment it came out, which in turn led Penguin to take the unusual step of releasing a paper-back edition after only four months.

Why We Sleep has been at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list ever since, even knocking Yuval Harari’s Sapiens off the top slot last week. We are all obsessed by this apparently elusive commodity.

Walker’s research, conducted on volunteers in a futuristic-sounding sleep lab — all beds and electrodes and scanners — in the bowels of the university building, proves conclusively that sleep deprivation contributes to depression, anxiety, obesity, memory loss, Alzheimer’s, cancer, stroke, infertility, heart attacks, an impaired immune system and more.

It lowers testosterone levels in men, causes fatal car accidents and contributes to ADHD in adolescents, who are often prescribed Ritalin when what they really need is sleep.

Worse still is the epidemic abuse of prescription sleeping pills, which far from inducing natural sleep are addictive sedatives that have devastating side effects and significantly raise mortality risk. Ultimately, however, Dr Sleep’s prescription is positive and blissfully simple: prioritise getting a good night’s sleep over everything else. That’s it.

He has flown over to London on a lightning-quick publicity tour and is so in demand from the media that his publicist has had to put him on a limobike to get him through the London traffic on time. Bright-eyed and dapper in a grey tweed waistcoat, with a surprising shock of frosted blonde hair, Liverpudlian born Walker, 44, admits that he is a self-confessed sleep fascist. “I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night,” he says, and concedes that his social life suffers.

“Friends say, ‘shall we go out to dinner at 8’? I say ‘I can’t, I’m a 10am till 6.30pm kind of guy.’ I keep that very regular, no matter what,” he says, rapidly chowing down a box of salmon sashimi while we talk. “I’m trying to stay off the carbs”.

He meditates up to four times a week using the Headspace app to relieve stress, which is the leading cause of insomnia, and to which “I’m just as susceptible as everyone else”; he cycles and goes to the gym daily; he avoids caffeine after midday and alcohol after 6pm.

He lives with his long-term partner, a musician, “she’s the cool part of the equation in the arts, I’m the nerdy scientist,” he says, and they sleep happily in separate bedrooms, having negotiated a “sleep divorce” a year into their relationship.

“The quality of the physical relationship that you have is actually increased when you undergo that sleep divorce, if the sleeping equation isn’t working.”

He admits modestly to being overwhelmed by the book’s success, because he didn’t know if he could write well — he can — yet acknowledges that the combination of our collective chronic fatigue and the explosive interest in neuroscience has created the perfect storm for “such a remarkable topic”.

Not only remarkable but one that could really change your life.

Snoring or thrashing about in bed can be a deal breaker so get a sleep divorce, says Walker. Thirty per cent of the population, when asked anonymously, will admit to not going to bed at the same time, or sleeping in the same bedroom as their partner.

There’s a stigma attached because it implies that you don’t have a good sex life. But if you look at the data, says Walker, the opposite is true, so long as you have a bedroom goodnight routine.

Find time to have a cuddle and do the same in the morning. The quality of your physical relationship will actually improve.

How to Survive the Move to BST

From a medical perspective, we should do away with British Summer Time entirely. On the last Sunday in March, when the clocks change, there is a marked spike in road traffic accidents and heart attacks, as a direct result of getting one hour less sleep. It’s hard to drag yourself back an entire hour in terms of bedtime. Instead, split the difference by going to bed and waking up 30 minutes earlier and later.

Sleep Trackers and Orthosomnia

Should we wear sleep trackers? Brands vary in their accuracy, says Walker, but the tech industry, including intelligent home systems that regulate light and temperature, will be revolutionised in the next few years and we’ll be tracking almost all of our physiology, including sleep, says Walker. But beware orthosomnia, a condition in which the tracker wearer becomes so obsessed that he or she isn’t getting the right kind of sleep, they get insomnia. Luckily it’s rare and trackers can help build a long-term picture of sleep patterns, says Walker.

Current work culture dictates that longer working hours result in higher productivity. Wrong, retorts Walker, who’s on a mission to smash themyth. His data show that under-slept employees select fewer challenging problems, come up with the leastcreative solutions and will ride on the coat tails of others – known as social loafing. They are also more likely to lie.

Under-slept bosses are rated less charismatic, even when their employees don’t know how much sleep they have had.

Sleep hygiene and the economy

Sleep deprivation is estimated to cost the UK economy up to £40 billion a year. Walker advises companies on how to have better “sleep hygiene”. Goldman Sachs and Procter and Gamble have introduced sleep hygiene courses. Nike and Google, two highly profit-driven companies, are among those to adopt more circadian rhythm-friendly staff schedules, differentiating between larks and owls, and allowing employees to set their own shift pattern. Just imagine the savings for the NHS and ultimately the entire UK economy

Don’t Fall Prey to Social Jet Lag

Getting up and going to bed early every weekday, followed by a weekend of staying up late and sleeping in, is, says Walker, a bad idea, otherwise known as social jet lag. You are “torturing your biology”, he says, because you are doing the equivalent of flying in and out of different European time zones every week. To improve sleep health, stick to the same times seven days a week.

How to Avoid Real Jet Lag

Travelling west to east is harder than vice-versa. Get into the new time zone by adjusting going to bed/getting up times by 15 minutes each day in the few days leading up to travel. Avoid alcohol and caffeine on flights and only sleep at the start of your trip, eating meals at the same time as your new time zone. Melatonin can re-set your body clock, as can getting sunlight in the morning without wearing sunglasses.

Don’t Boast About How Little Sleep You Get

It’s not cool and anyone who claims to be getting only four to five hours a night sleep is making irrational decisions. After 20 hours of being awake, your faculties are as impaired as that of a drunk driver, so yes, you can make decisions but you’ll be cognitively impaired. Trump is the perfect example. Matthew Walker has written an essay exclusively for the Standard.

8 steps for the night of your dreams

Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, seven days a week.

Keep your bedroom cool. No more than 18 degrees C.

Don’t drink caffeine after midday, or alcohol after 6pm.

Don’t lie in bed awake. Get up and do something else until you feel sleepy again.

A hot-water bottle placed at your feet will draw body heat downwards and cool core body temperature.

Use blackout curtains or blinds.

Keep lighting low for the two hours leading up to lights out.

Turn computers, smartphones and tablets off an hour before lights out.

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker (Penguin, £10.99)


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