Why We Sleep

Dr. Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep, Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (Simon & Schuster, 2017), reveals that, besides being essential to health and life, sleep brings a magical level of creativity. Walker chronicles “some of the most revolutionary leaps forward in human progress” first rode into existence on dreams.

         For example, during the night of February 17, 1869, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev dreamed the periodic table of elements. According to Walker, “The dream took hold of the swirling ingredients in his mind and, in a moment of creative brilliance, snapped them together in a divine grid…”

         Walker also describes Otto Loewi’s dream of two frogs’ hearts that ultimately revealed how nerve cells communicate using neurotransmitters. That discovery won the Nobel Prize. We also learn that “Yesterday” and “Let it Be” came to Paul McCartney in his sleep. Keith Richards has a similar story behind “Satisfaction.”

Why We Don’t Sleep

Naturally, the driving question behind Why We Sleep is “Why do we not sleep?”

         At the most extreme, today many countries (including the US) officially authorize sleep deprivation as a form of torture against enemies. But, what about the ways “civilized” behavior keeps us from sleeping? How is modern life imposing poor health and even death through restricted sleep? Walker names the biggest culprits:

  • Constant light (including LED)
  • Temperature (our bodies need cool air for sleeping best)
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol (“one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep”)
  • Work schedules (factory whistles and alarm clocks spike blood pressure)


Furthermore, US workplaces try to fight smoking, substance abuse, injurious practices, disease, etc. “But insufficient sleep—another harmful, potentially deadly factor—is commonly tolerated and even woefully encouraged.”

         Beyond those big 5, Walker links our inability to sleep with heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and cancer. Yet, he writes, “More than 65 percent of the US adult population fail to obtain the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night…”

         Making it all worse, too often, when we can’t sleep, we reach for the wrong fix, sleeping pills. They decrease the quality of sleep and increase the risk of poor health and early death.   

Return to Sanity

So, how do we go to sleep? Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, depending on your perspective, returning to what we’ve always known builds the best paths to sleep. We should:

  1. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  2. Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine (especially in the afternoon and evening).
  3. Eat moderately.
  4. Make sure your medicines do not delay or disrupt sleep.
  5. Don’t nap after 3:00 p.m.
  6. Relax before going to bed.
  7. Make your bedroom cool, dark, and free of sound or light-emitting gadgets.


Why We Sleep weaves beautiful logic and rhythms into finding our way back to healthy sleep. And, of course, that goes far beyond those 7 points. In fact, as I read, I often thought of Psalm 127:3, “It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.” (NASB)  

         Unbelievably, western societies decided to work too long and too hard to obtain what is a gift from God.

         Sleep is one of the primary gauges on the dashboard of life. Why We Sleep presents a compelling case for keeping our eye on that panel, especially the dial that often clangs and flashes “SLEEP – SLEEP – SLEEP.”

NOTE: If you order this book from Amazon, be very careful. An almost-identically titled book, with similar cover design, and almost twice the price will pop up first if you search for Why We Sleep. It’s a scam. Make sure you get this book:

3 thoughts on “Why We Sleep”

  1. Mary Ann Weakley

    Good review, Ed. Reminds me how I often think about the value other countries put on relaxation and sleep. Seems to me they understand how to work less hours and sleep more, resulting in a happier, healthy life.

    Hope you and Joanne are well and enjoying your new home.

  2. “Good sleep hygiene” is what psychologists call human’s need for sleep. As a child psychologist, I see firsthand the fallout when sleep is interrupted or short-changed in children. Inattention, poor memory, irritability, poor academic performance, bad behavior!

    And, yet, there has been an exponential increase in sleep disorders in both American children and adults in recent decades. Perhaps the most senseless reason for sleep deprivation in children (and probably adults as well)? Blue light rays emanating from TV’s, computers, cell phones, and video game devices at a time our bodies are telling us to slow down to rest from the day’s activities.

    I preach to parents, but it often falls on deaf ears. In many ways, parents’ failure to control technology is a form of child abuse.

    Sermon completed. Amen.

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