Continuing with this week’s theme of sleep, Sarah reviews Professor Alice Gregory’s (guest contributor for our final A-Z blog) book ‘Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave’.
If you have been lucky enough to work with Professor Alice Gregory, as I was when I worked as a placement student on her team, you will remember that simply being around her causes you to pay closer attention to your own sleeping habits. Apart from the days when we complain because we feel the physical effects of lack of sleep, it isn’t usually foremost in our thoughts. Being in the presence of a sleep researcher, however, suddenly makes you very aware of how large a role it plays in our lives.
I was reminded of this when I pulled Professor Gregory’s new book, Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave, out of my bag on my morning commute to work. As I leafed carefully through the first few pages, making sure not to elbow the young woman to my right, asleep on her partner’s shoulder, nor the twitchy businessman to my left, slurping loudly at a large coffee to fight his fatigue, the subject of this book seemed more relevant than ever. Amused by all of this – and a little smug as I felt that, after a year of working with Professor Gregory, I knew more about sleep than the sleep-deprived commuters on my journey – I read on to see how I measured up.
This book, however, is not at all a 10-step guide to better sleep, nor a strict description of the “model-sleeper” we should aspire to be, but in fact something much, much more valuable. If sleep were a person, I would say that in writing this book Professor Gregory has produced a biography, a homage to a subject in which she has an incredible degree of expertise. The chronological format lends itself well to an introduction to sleep because, much like a person, sleep evolves and changes with age. We the readers are, therefore, given a detailed description of sleep from infancy to retirement age and from needing 12-16 hours a night to 7-9 hours. The book also covers the sleep habits that are appropriate for each age group and the stages of development at which symptoms of sleep conditions and abnormal sleep behaviours start to appear. Though most readers will likely fall into the age group described in the Adult chapter of the book, this does not mean you should skip to page 153 to find what is most relevant to you – far from it! You will find, following this book in the order in which Gregory has so thoughtfully curated, that you will understand why sleep behaviour truly is something that stems back to our infancy and, to some extent, even further back to our genetic make-up.
“If sleep were a person, I would say that in writing this book Professor Gregory has produced a biography, a homage to a subject in which she has an incredible degree of expertise.”
The book goes further than simple description. At its core, Nodding Off remains a scientific text, Gregory having done all the work for us by gathering an extensive number of studies on sleep, sifting through them carefully, and reporting back to summarise how the evidence translates. The first chapter, Sleep 101, neatly presents all the basic science on sleep for us. It starts by defining sleep and the different biological processes occurring at each of its stages. It moves on to summarise the role of key neurological structures and neurotransmitters involved in sleep and concludes by introducing different proposed theories on why sleep is important. This provides a great foundation for the reader as, throughout the book, Gregory continuously refers to these highlighted terms and theories, demonstrating their relevance at all stages of sleep development and linking sleep disorders to abnormalities in biological processes. Professor Gregory’s background as a PhD student at the Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre has also equipped her with the rare ability to comment on how sleep behaviours could have links to predetermined genotypes. Again, due to Gregory’s thoughtful writing style, this is all explained in lay terms, giving those who have never learned about the links between psychology and genetics a great introduction to how these studies work.
If I were to choose the most appealing feature of this book, it would be the author’s voice and the lively manner in which she writes. You will find that the book is bursting with funny anecdotes, creative metaphors and overall jovial expressions, something truly characteristic of Professor Gregory. This extremely refreshing writing style makes the book accessible for a diverse audience, saving you from a dry or intimidating tone that is often the case in academic writing. As a reader, you’ll catch yourself chuckling as you go through each chapter and, at times, the engaging stories make it feel like a conversation with Gregory. . . what better way to learn about how to get a good night’s sleep than having a conversation with a sleep expert?
“You will find that the book is bursting with funny anecdotes, creative metaphors and overall jovial expressions, something truly characteristic of Professor Gregory.”
After finishing this book, even if you don’t change your sleep habits (as the point of the book is to educate you about sleep, not to instruct), you will definitely be more mindful of your sleep as an essential part of a healthy life. I have to admit that in my case, through my choice to put my phone away two hours before bed and keep any essay-writing or stressful job applications out of my bedroom in the name of sleep hygiene, this book has definitely had an influence on my life. Now that I know that it goes against our biology to wake up when it’s dark outside, I have felt a bit more justified in ‘snoozing’ my alarm until the sun is up. If you’re looking for a scientific explanation to cement your right to a lie-in, then look no further, Nodding Off may very well be the answer.