Sleep is your best medicine

Posted on: 13th November, 2017

Category: Health

Contributor: Hannah Dare

As I get older, I find I am fiercely protective of my sleep. All night parties are a thing of the past, and our kids get a stern talking to if they develop notions about middle of the night adventures! So when I read that there was a new book published on sleep – ‘Why We Sleep’ by neuroscientist and sleep researcher Matthew Walker – I immediately ordered it. Walker’s argument is that sleep is vitally important to our physical and mental/emotional health, to our disease resistance and our longevity:

Amazing Breakthrough! Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?

A full night’s sleep, of course, is this ‘amazing’ treatment he is referring to. Simple sleep, which we learn to do before we were born, and yet which we can sometimes think is a waste of our time, or not worthy of the space it takes in our lives, is such a panacea it has beneficial effects for every species, from glow worms to whales. If this were an advert for a new drug, people would hardly believe it, but on the off chance it might work, we would be queueing up for it! Many of us struggle with achieving a full night’s’ sleep, or try to argue we don’t really need it, and often without really realising it, we undermine our chances of getting it by indulging in alcohol or caffeine or Netflix. Walker’s book is a call to treasure our sleep, protect it from disruption, never undermine it but rather understand it. He argues that rather than prescribing pills Doctors should be prescribing sleep, and he hopes that once people know of the powerful links between sleep loss and, among other things, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and poor mental health, they will try harder to get the recommended eight hours a night.

Why are we so sleep deprived? First, we electrified the night, Walker says. Light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commute times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All these are the enemies of sleep.

Have you ever wondered why you feel sleepy? The feeling (called the ‘pressure to sleep’) comes from a build up of a sleep-hormone called Adenosine, which builds up if you haven’t slept for a while, or if you have slept poorly (if you have a disturbed night’s sleep it might build up in the morning for example) and then dissipates after a period of sleep.

Our nighttime sleep is divided into REM and Non REM or NREM sleep. Both are important, although this was not always believed to be the case: During NREM sleep, your brain goes into this incredible synchronised pattern of rhythmic chanting, Walker says. There’s a remarkable unity across the surface of the brain, like a deep, slow mantra. Researchers were once fooled that this state was similar to a coma. But nothing could be further from the truth. Vast amounts of memory processing is going on. To produce these brainwaves, hundreds of thousands of cells all sing together, and then go silent, and on and on. Meanwhile, your body settles into this lovely low state of energy, the best blood-pressure medicine you could ever hope for. REM sleep, on the other hand, is sometimes known as paradoxical sleep, because the brain patterns are identical to when you’re awake. It’s an incredibly active brain state. Your heart and nervous system go through spurts of activity: we’re still not exactly sure why.

Caffeine and alcohol are both named and shamed as sleep disruptors by Walker. From a sleep perspective, caffeine suppresses Adenosine (temporarily) but once your liver dismantles that barricade of caffeine, you feel a vicious backlash: you are hit with the sleepiness you had experienced two or three hours ago before you drank that cup of coffee plus all the extra adenosine that has accumulated in the hours in between; unless you consume more caffeine, you are going to find it very, very difficult to remain awake. So you drink more, and more, and more! But the problem is that caffeine has a ‘half life’ or effect that lingers for five to seven hours after you have consumed it, and the sleep you experience when you have caffeine in your system isn’t as restful as it needs to be, which means that your evening slumber can be disrupted or affected negatively by a mid afternoon cappuccino.

Alcohol has a similarly poor effect on our sleep; firstly apparently energising us but at the same time sedating us, though not into sleep but simply into unconsciousness. But the sleep we have when under the influence is not refreshing, and is missing the REM element.

I have to admit in my ideal world I would nap most days, in the afternoon. And according to Walker this is what we were designed to do, before our societies changed and we all became so concerned with productivity. We currently sleep just once in 24 hours, which is called a monophasic  pattern of sleep, but if you visit cultures untouched by electricity you will often find they sleep in a biphasic pattern, with similar length of sleep at night and a second sleep in afternoon. In Greece until very recently everyone have a long siesta-like nap every day – businesses shut, kids came home from school and workmen downed tools. But since the turn of the millennium this practice has changed, due to a perceived need to move with the times and become a more modern country – with often tragic consequences. A study tracked a group of 23,000 men and women of many ages who all abandoned their siesta over six years and the result was that even though there was no history of heart disease they have a 37 per cent increased risk of death by heart attack compared to the people who still kept their naps.

In another disturbing study, a group of Australian researchers took a group of adults, half of whom they got drunk to the legal limit for driving, and the other half of whom they sleep-deprived for one night. Both groups were then given functional tasks to do and measured for their lapses. Significantly, after being awake for 19 hours, the people who were sleep-deprived were as bad at the tasks, as the people who were legally drunk! If you wake up at 7am and remain awake throughout the day, then go out socialising with friends until late that evening, yet drink no alcohol whatsoever, by the time you are driving home at 2am, you are as cognitively impaired…as a legally drunk driver. And since car crashes are the leading cause of death in most first-world nations, Walker argues that more research is needed into what he calls ‘Drowsy Driving’. Operating on less that five hours sleep, your risk of a car crash increases threefold. Get behind the wheel of a car when having slept just four hours or less the night before and you are 11.5 times more likely to be involved in a car accident. Something that we should all be aware of, you might think? The dangers of drowsy driving, Walker argues, is something that Governments should be informing us of.

This notion came from research into the best timing and length of naps for long haul Airline Pilots. Having a pilot rested when he or she lands your plane after flying for 24 hours is a very wholesome idea, as landing is the apparently most challenging point of the flight. One thing that stayed with me was that if you know you have a long period ahead with little chance of sleep, the best solution is to nap at the start, rather than once you have become exhausted. Another discovery, this time made by NASA, was that a nap of as little as 26 minutes offered approximately a 30 per cent improvement in overall alertness. Again, useful to know for long drives!

And does Walker take his own advice? He certainly does. Yes. I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70 per cent, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organisation has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?

If you are having difficulty sleeping, call in to Organico and have a chat about natural aids to sleep. If you’d like to buy Matthew’s book we have a couple of copies for sale in Organico Cafe. Organico Shop Cafe and Bakery is open from 9am till 6.15pm every day. Call us on 027 51391. Visit us on FaceBook or online at, or email us on

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