Sleep Well

From the Headmaster's Desk, October 9, 2017

This term we have already spoken to you about mobile phone use on several occasions. You may remember that my main piece of advice was to sleep with your mobile phone outside of your bedroom, in order that you might enjoy uninterrupted sleep.

Coincidentally, and separately, last week I came across the most significant book yet to be published about sleep. The book is called ‘Why We Sleep: The Science of Sleep and Dreams’, written by Matthew Walker. The book was only released on October 3rd and I pre-ordered my copy. Over the weekend, I have been trying to balance my desire to get to bed early with my interest in reading Walker’s research.

Walker is British: he grew up in Liverpool and studied medicine at Nottingham, but instead of practising medicine he became a researcher, doing a PhD and then teaching at Harvard Medical School. For 20 years he has been closely studying sleep and he is now Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California Berkeley, and also the Director of their Centre for Human Sleep Science. He is considered the world’s foremost expert on sleep. So even if you remain sceptical of my advice, do pay attention to his.

The aim of his sleep centre, which is based just outside of San Francisco, California, is to understand everything about sleep and its impact on human beings. One of the central tenets of his book is frightening, as he argues that we are in the midst of a ‘catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic’. And furthermore, he outlines why the consequences are more serious than we realise, so much so, that he argues that governments should get involved with encouraging and helping us to regulate our sleep.

…he argues that we are in the midst of a ‘catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic’.

Walker has spent nearly five years writing his book, which outlines research that shows sleep deprivation links to memory loss – this is significant for those of you who hope to remember what you’re studying every day. Yet even more serious than this impact on academic progress, his research has shown that lack of sleep contributes to long-term health issues: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, anxiety, drug abuse, cancer, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression – and it weakens our immune system, so we’re more susceptible to every illness under the sun and moon, if we’re sleep deprived.

He recommends a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night for adults, and says that anything less than seven hours is sleep deprivation. School age children, so most of you, are recommended to get between 9 and 11 hours per night.

Of course different people require different amounts of sleep. So how do you know when you’re getting enough sleep? Walker argues that you know, when you don’t need an alarm clock to wake you up. He thinks we go about alarm clocks in the wrong way: we should set alarms that remind us it is time to start heading to bed, not the other way around.

Professor Walker’s book also analyses why humans now try to sleep less. He notes throughout most of human societies over the centuries, people went to bed once it got dark. Midnight was, literally, the middle of the night. Yet in 2017, almost 50% of the population attempts to survive on six hours of sleep. He blames many modern inventions for this, explaining that we have electrified the night. Light is detrimental to sleep, and when we light up our homes and watch TV or look at screens, we artificially keep ourselves awake after dark. He blames modern technology for encouraging us to work from home and work later, and of course entertainment after dark has become the norm.

Alcohol and caffeine, both widely available in our society, are two of the biggest enemies of sleep. Numerous scientific studies have shown how these two chemicals disrupt our natural sleep patterns.

He notes that humans are the only species in the entire animal kingdom who deliberately deprive themselves of sleep. Sometimes the need to sleep is seen as a weakness: even James Bond famously said, ‘I’ll sleep when I die.’ Walker’s research shows that the percentage of the human population who can survive on less than five hours of sleep, without impairment, is zero.

Walker’s book is full of advice, and I’ve already mentioned his advice about sleeping eight hours – or more for young people – and avoiding alcohol and caffeine. One of his other key tips is that he advises people to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day: your body has a natural rhythm and clock, and it is best if you are consistent with how you treat this. Walker follows his own advice. ‘I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence.’

I hope that Walker’s research and advice make you keen for an early night tonight. But, more than this, I hope it makes you adopt better routines, including consistently going to bed early and avoiding screens near bedtime and in the bedroom. The more I learn about the importance of sleep, the more I have come to realise that one of the most important things that we can do as a school in order to ensure you make good progress in your education, is to encourage you to sleep!

The more I learn about the importance of sleep, the more I have come to realise that one of the most important things that we can do as a school in order to ensure you make good progress in your education, is to encourage you to sleep!

Without sleep, there is low energy and disease. With sleep, there is vitality and health. Sleeping well will improve your learning, mood, and energy levels, with a positive impact on your efficiency and productivity. Walker notes that 20 large-scale studies all report a clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. I don’t have time to go into any more detail this morning, but read his book or the various reviews in the press about it for more detail and advice.

Since coming across Walker’s research in the past couple of weeks, I have already been better about looking after my own sleep, and I feel better because of it. I wish the same for all of you. Have a very good week, and sleep well.

Book an open event Apply online Keep exploring