Why We Sleep (Matthew Walker)

Whenever I see a patient whose sleep is severely impacted by pain, I have to find a balance between treating the cause of the problem, and providing a bit of relief to help with sleep. After reading Why We Sleep, I’m leaning more towards helping sleep before I try and tackle the original problem.

We all massively underestimate the importance of sleep. One passage that caught my eye early on was:

We are now forced to wonder whether there are any biological functions that do not benefit by a good night’s sleep.

Matthew Walker is a neuroscientist specialising in sleep. His book is full of research from his colleagues and himself, and written in a way that makes the science understandable. It’s also presented in a way that answers questions you might have had in passing, as well as things you’ve never even considered. The good news is that naps are very good for you!

There is so much that sleep can do that we in medicine currently cannot.

Walker wrote about a small study that found a link between sleep and sports injuries. Athletes were monitored over the course of a sporting season, with their length of sleep and number of injuries measured. The results showed that those who slept 8 hours a night had a 35% risk of injury over the season. Those who had fewer than 6 hours sleep were 75% likely to pick up an injury.

Would you believe that the incidence of cancer, stroke, heart attack, dementia, and diabetes are all increased by lack of sleep? For perspective, if you sleep for fewer than 6 hours a night for 5 years, your risk of heart attack or stroke will double or triple respectively. Adequate sleep helps maintain a healthy weight, a high sperm count, and good bacteria in the gut.

A lot of patients try to avoid taking painkillers as much as possible, and might expect me to be equally tablet-averse. However when sleep is severely disrupted by pain, I do urge patients to speak to their GP about analgesics. The relationship between pain and sleep is so deep that sleep should be the priority for managing pain.

The book is so rich with information I couldn’t possibly cover it all here, but if you want to know if you’re chronically sleep deprived, or how best to use caffeine to your advantage, get yourself a copy.

Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker


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