Book Review: "Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams" by Matthew Walker

Sleep and I have never been good friends. I’ve been blessed with the ability to fall asleep easily when I want to, but that’s just it—I don’t usually want to. During my adolescence and much of my adult life, sleep has been a nuisance.

My motto for sleep has always been the classic “sleep is for the weak.” Or, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Or how about this quote popularly (but probably wrongly) attributed to Edgar Allen Poe: “Sleep, those little slices of death—how I loathe them.” Can you relate?

As I’ve grown older and more conscious of my mental and physical health, my sleep has improved dramatically. When I began tracking my sleep, first with just my iPhone and then more accurately using an Apple Watch, I really began to see some progress. But now, I have a feeling that my latest read will truly change things—not only for me, but also for my family.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams is written by Matthew Walker—a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The book is written for a general audience. And while it often includes technical, nitty-gritty details about the brain, drugs, and other pertinent areas of research, I found the style to be very clear and approachable. If you’ve ever wondered why nature thought it necessary to devise such a bizarre phenomenon as sleep, this is the book for you.

This New York Times Bestseller, published in 2017, is a real eye-opener. For many, I expect it’ll feel like a horror novel. Using the latest findings from well-cited research, Walker unequivocally links a lack of sleep to everything from dementia to infertility, from depression to obesity, from poor grades to cancer. Put simply, shorter sleep = shorter (and less rich) life. Our go, go, go society has really messed us all up. Not only do most working adults hit the pillow later than they should, but most children and teenagers are forced awake earlier than their circadian rhythms prefer. The consequences for individuals, families, the economy, and society as a whole are monumental.

It’s not all negative. In fact, the book is ultimately a message of hope—of room for improvement. Want to improve your creativity, your memory, and your ability to learn new skills? Get more sleep. Want to have more control over your emotions and live a happier life? Get more sleep. Want to strengthen your immune system and your tolerance for pain? Yep.

At almost every point in this book, I felt a desire to share its contents with the world. I’ve thought of so many friends and family who either need to hear what this book has to say or who would simply appreciate the reminder to get better sleep. So, yes, if you ask me if you should read this book, then yes. An unequivocal, fat, juicy yes.

I’ll end this brief review with a list of Walker’s suggestions to getting a good night’s sleep. He elaborates on each of these in detail in the book. In order of effectiveness, Walker suggests:

  1. Stick to a sleep schedule.
  2. Exercise is great, but not too late in the day.
  3. Avoid caffeine and nicotine.
  4. Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed.
  5. Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
  6. If possible, avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep.
  7. Don’t take naps after 3 p.m.
  8. Relax before bed.
  9. Take a hot bath before bed.
  10. Dark bedroom, cool bedroom, gadget-free bedroom.
  11. Have the right sunlight exposure.
  12. Don’t lie in bed awake.