A fascinating insight into sleep and health

This book sets out how and, more importantly, why we sleep, from a health benefit perspective.

Book cover of Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

We all need sleep, and some manage to sleep for longer (think of teenagers) than others. The general rule that we need between six and eight hours each night will be familiar to most, but what about the fact that insufficient sleep is harmful to our health? This was news to me, and in his new book, Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, clearly describes the myriad adverse effects that insufficient sleep has on health.

The book starts with an explanation of how and why we sleep. Humans, as well as all other living creatures, run a 24-hour cycle that tells us when we should wake up and when we should go to sleep. The biological master clock that creates diurnal rhythm resides in an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This biological clock also influences preferences for eating, moods and metabolic rate. Interestingly, this rhythm persists even if we live in a cave without access to daylight, as confirmed by two researchers who spent six weeks in darkness. Ignoring this rhythm and demand for sleep can wreak havoc on our body systems.

Walker offers up two simple questions we can use to determine if we are getting enough sleep. If on waking you could easily drop off for another few hours and if you can’t get through the morning without a caffeine fix, then you have insufficient sleep quality and quantity. The book considers the sleep requirements of different age groups. It was interesting to note that, contrary to popular belief, older people still need as much sleep as younger folk; but as we age, it becomes increasingly difficult to generate the signal for sufficient sleep.

The second part of the book examines the impact of poor sleep on health. Adequate sleep improves memory, creativity (hence the phrase ‘to sleep on it’) and weight loss, wards off colds and flu, and lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In successive chapters, Walker outlines the research evidence to back up his claims. Later chapters examine why we dream, and the author describes some fascinating and cutting-edge work in this area, in which researchers were able to uncover the broad content of a person’s dreams.

No book on sleep would be complete without a discussion of sleeping pills, which, unsurprisingly, the author perceives as a bad idea. He even provides evidence that sleeping pills increase the risk of death, especially among people who use them heavily.

Finally, the book closes with 12 tips on how to get a good night’s sleep: essentially a list of dos and don’ts. Walker concludes that sufficient sleep is essential and that we should listen to our bodies and not resist the urge to stay awake, because we are probably just storing up health problems for the future.

This book is very easy to read and pharmacists will likely learn a great deal that they can then use to help those seeking over-the-counter sleep aids.


Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, by Mathew Walker. Pp 342. Price £9.99. London: Penguin Random House; 2017. ISBN 978-0-141-98376-9

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, April 2018, Vol 300, No 7912;300(7912):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2018.20204383

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