We are in the middle of a health crisis, according to Matthew Walker, PhD, a neuroscientist, UC Berkeley professor, and founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. That health crisis as a burgeoning epidemic that unfortunately doctors are all too familiar with: insufficient sleep.
With sleep deprivation so ingrained in physician culture and training that it’s practically a bragging right or badge of honor, American doctors may be at risk to a myriad of chronic health conditions and diseases, research shows.
Walker, who gained popularity with his bestseller Why We Sleep, is having a bit of a pop culture moment. His recent appearances on popular podcasts hosted by Joe Rogan, Dr. Peter Attia, and Dr. Rhonda Patrick have further propelled him, his work, and sleep research into the spotlight. Walker also recently gave a TED talk, which was covered in a widely circulated WIRED magazine article.
With all of the attention, Walker has a platform to spread the gospel of sleep. And doctors, here’s why you need to hear the good news. Increasingly, research is pointing toward a link between disrupted sleep and various diseases.
What sleep research tells us
A preliminary study presented this week at the American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting shows that people with sleep apnea tend to have higher accumulations of tau — a dementia biomarker — in their brains. In a 2015 study of his own, Walker and his research team established a link between disrupted deep and the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain.
“Sleep is helping wash away toxic proteins at night, preventing them from building up and from potentially destroying brain cells,” Walker said in a UC Berkeley news release. “It’s providing a power cleanse for the brain.”
Even if sleep doesn’t turn out to be the missing dementia link, poor sleep is associated with three of our biggest killers, according to this recent literature review: hypertension, coronary heart disease, and diabetes. The same review points out that western societies are sleeping about 1.5 hours less than they were a century ago. Think physician residencies are skewing the data? If you’re serious about getting your own health back on track, start with building some good sleep habits.
How to get better sleep
- Limit exposure to blue light at night. While this part of the spectrum is great at waking you up, it suppresses melatonin levelsin the evening. Put your smartphone and other devices away at night, or buy blue-blocking glasses.
- Get sunshine during the day.Exposure to natural light helps with sleep hormone regulation. Be sure to get some sunlight in the morning and throughout the day — just don’t get burned.