Quality Sleep: The Supreme Superpower 

Have you ever dreamt about having superpowers? It turns out you do have a superpower – something as simple as sleep has the “super” potential to heal the body and mind on the inside and out. Matthew Walker, founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkley describes sleep as “the neglected stepsister in the health conversation today.”1

Walker is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams and the director of The Center for Human Sleep Science, which investigates the role of sleep in human health and disease. This research uses brain imaging methods as well as recordings and cognitive testing to evaluate the role of sleep in human health and disease. Walker has studied neuroscience and sleep for nearly twenty years and has focused on studying Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, depression, anxiety, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Some of Walker’s results are staggering. In a 2019 TED talk, he shared some startling results – sleep deprivation may lead to a 40% deficiency in the ability to form new memories. Walker and his team have discovered that powerful brainwaves are activated during the deepest stages of sleep which are accompanied by bright bursts of electrical activity referred to as sleep spindles. These brainwaves act like a file-transfer system that can store short-term memories as long-term memories.  

To prove his point, Walker pointed to an example of universal evidence of the negative impact of sleep loss: daylight savings time. Each spring, when the clocks move one hour forward and we subsequently lose an hour of sleep, there is a 24% increased incidence in heart attacks the following day. In the fall, when we regain that hour of sleep, there is a 21% reduction in heart attacks.2 

Sleep also has a significant impact on our immune system, according to Walker and his team. Natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell, play a significant role in the innate immune system. These cells are able to find unwanted foreign elements (such as viruses) and eliminate them. Restricting sleep to only four hours in a single night resulted in an incredible 70% reduction in the beneficial natural killer cell activity. This reduction is a significant interruption to immune activity. The disruption of sleep-wake rhythms has become well recognized, so much that the World Health Organization has even classified forms of nighttime shift work to be a likely carcinogen.  

Here’s the good news – sleep quality is entirely within your control! Walker gives two main tips to improve the length and quality of sleep: regularity and temperature. Keeping a consistent sleep-wake schedule (i.e., falling asleep and waking at the same consistent times) will help keep your body rhythms intact through the weekdays and the weekend. Additionally, Walker recommends a bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees to optimize sleep quality and promote staying asleep through the night.  

The recommended amount of sleep for the average adult is seven to nine hours each night. Your personal target may depend on your unique physiology. If you find that you are constantly sleeping past your alarm clock wakeup call, then you may need to increase the amount of sleep you are getting daily. Likewise, if you sleep later on the weekends, your body may be trying to “make up” for sleep lost during the week (spoiler alert – we cannot bank our sleep hours to be used later).  

If you find yourself dragging and reaching for the coffee pot or feeling the need to take naps often, consider adding a bit more time to your nightly rest schedule. The benefits of a greater sense of well-being from a good night’s sleep may shock you!