Sleep expert explains why skimping on zzzs is harmful

On Tuesday, March 26, sleep expert and author Matthew Walker told an Ellen Driscoll Theater audience about the importance of sleep in all areas of life. The talk marked the end of the seventh season of the Education Speaker Series.

Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology and the founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science at Berkeley. He said that sleep is as fundamental to human life as oxygen, water, and food. We need sleep after learning, to remember what we’ve learned, but also before learning, to maximize the brain’s ability to function.

Quality of sleep matters, too; uninterrupted sleep helps convert short-term memory to long term memory. Sleep deprivation, including all-nighters to study, has serious negative effects. Walker went on discuss sleep’s effects on aging and dementia. He’s currently studying whether “direct current brain stimulation” during sleep can help delay memory loss for older people, as it has proven to do for younger adults.

He also discussed the impact of sleep, or lack thereof, on education. Several studies have shown improvements in test scores, and declines in truancy, psychiatric problems, and traffic accidents, with delays of just one hour in school start times. Walker described this as a “civil rights issue”, and mentioned his efforts to persuade the California legislature to make these changes statewide.

Walker also discussed sleep’s impact on mental health and genetics. Unsurprisingly, sleep helps with emotional stability, but it also has direct effects on our genes. He concluded his talk by emphasizing that sleep is not optional, but a biological necessity. Walker then responded to the audience’s questions about other interesting topics, including:

* Sleeping pills lead to sedation, which does not confer the same benefits as naturalistic sleep.

* An alternative to sleeping pills is cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBTI.

* Use of phones or other screens before sleep affects melatonin levels, and leads to “sleep procrastination” and “anticipatory anxiety” (akin to waking up before the alarm for an early morning flight).

* Doctors in training with long shifts have been shown to make many times more errors in surgery and diagnosis, and to suffer many more car accidents when driving home, than doctors who got normal sleep.

* To the extent possible, regularity, i.e. going to sleep and waking up around the same time each day, is preferable. It’s difficult if not impossible to pay back “sleep debt.”

* Naps can be helpful, but only if they don’t interfere with regular nighttime sleep.

* Caffeine consumption fragments sleep and decreases deep sleep.

* Like sleeping pills, alcohol causes sedation, not the necessary deep sleep.

* Exercise is generally good for sleep, but not if it’s done too close to bed time.

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