“Sleepless in America” – Interview With Nat Geo’s Sleep Expert

The pervasive lack of sleep is a national public health issue. National Geographic Channel (NGC) along with The Public Good Projects and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have teamed up to develop Sleepless In America, premiering tonight at 8PM EST/PST. Directed by award-winning producer John Hoffman, this highly anticipated film exposes the hidden epidemic of sleep deprivation. Here, I interview featured expert and director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, Matthew Walker, PhD.

Matthew WalkerLakhan: Why do we sleep?

Walker: We sleep for a rich litany of functions – an abundant constellation of night-time benefits that service both our brains and our bodies. There doesn’t seem to one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep, and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough.

Lakhan: Can you elaborate on your work on sleep and memory, learning, and emotion?

Walker: Sleep rejuvenates the learning capacity of our brains. It also helps cement new memories, effectively hitting the “save” button so we don’t forget. Sleep also refreshes our emotional brain circuits, preparing us for next day social and psychological challenges.

Beyond the brain, I should also note that sleep boosts our immune system to ward off sickness, infection and malignancy. Sleep stabilizes our body’s energy balance by optimizing factors such as glucose and insulin. Sleep further regulates our appetite and our food choices, helping control our weight. Sleep is also intimately tied to the fitness of our cardiovascular system, including the health of our heart and the management of blood pressure.

Lakhan: What have been the most impressive applications of your research on sleep?

Walker: My work, and that of many others, has highlighted the importance of sleep for learning and memory in the context of education. For example, some states have later school start times, allowing children and teens to sleep for longer. Grade point averages have risen significantly as a consequence.

Lakhan: Where do you see the future of sleep research and therapeutics?

Walker: First, we have to see a tidal shift in how society perceives sleep, making it a priority rather than a luxury we can occasionally experience in sufficient amounts. Second, we need to develop significantly better methods for creating naturalistic sleep in people suffering from insomnia. Third, I believe sleep research in the area of psychiatric illness will be of particular future relevance. Every psychiatric mood disorder displays alterations in sleep. Sleep has a powerful story to tell in our future understanding and treatment of psychiatric illness.

Lakhan: What will Sleepless in America offer to both patients and the biomedical community?

Walker: The documentary will highlight the fact that our lack of sleep is the most striking omission in the health conversation of today. By the end of the documentary, I believe the public will being to realize that sleep is the third pillar of good health, together with diet and exercise.

Image via PathDoc / Shutterstock.

Shaheen E Lakhan, MD, PhD, MEd, MS, FAAN

Shaheen E Lakhan, MD, PhD, MEd, MS, FAAN, is a board-certified neurologist and pain specialist, medical educator, and scientist. He is the executive director of the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation (GNIF). He is a published scholar in biomarkers, biotechnology, education technology, and neurology. He serves on the editorial board of several scholarly publications and has been honored by the U.S. President and Congress.
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