How pop-culture sleep science messaging hurts people’s sleep, and why sleep professionals need to speak out.
By James Wilson
Recently sleep scientist and pop-culture icon Matthew Walker, PhD, used the phrase “sleep bulimia” in his podcast and on Twitter to describe weekend catch-up sleep. This comparison is so disrespectful to people who have eating disorders. At best the phrase is an ill-thought-out use of language; at worst it is a cynical attempt to use a serious eating disorder to draw attention to his work.
This type of fear-mongering messaging is common in pop-culture prescriptions for “better sleep.” But the reality is it makes people’s sleep worse.
This language is not limited to Walker. There is a cadre of experts, including Andrew Huberman, PhD, who are feeding sleep anxiety. Then there are the people whose podcasts and social channels disperse the hyperbole, such as Joe Rogan, Tim Ferris, and the plethora of TV presenters, entrepreneurs, and sports people who act as the amplifiers.
I find myself being one of the few people willing to call out this counterproductive language on social media. Why do sleep medicine practitioners and academics tolerate the prescriptive, hyperbolic, fear-mongering messaging that surrounds popular sleep science?
I spend my days working with all sorts of people, from soccer internationals to shift workers, helping them get better sleep. Over the last couple of years, increasing numbers of clients have told me how a book or podcast left them jumpy about their sleep. A management consultancy that featured Walker’s Why We Sleep as their book club selection even brought me in after the book had such a negative impact on its workers’ sleep.
Why We Sleep is a well-written, interesting book, but I have seen it cause poor sleepers to sleep worse and OK sleepers to begin sleeping poorly. Its advice works for a certain mindset, but generally, it hinders more than helps. Instead, we should advocate for taking the stress out of sleep—the real way most people sleep better.
There is a misunderstanding among the public that sleep is like nutrition or exercise—that we can force ourselves to sleep better. But trying too hard to sleep is often the problem. Poor sleepers don’t need to be told the health impacts of poor sleep; they feel it daily. They especially don’t need to be told in a way that cherry-picks the science and then delivers it in a scary way.
I don’t actually think Walker, Huberman, or the others want to worsen people’s sleep. If you look at the Toolkit for Sleep on the Huberman Lab site, most of the content is sound. But his social media channels tend to cherry-pick aspects that spark unnecessary alarm. For example, on July 3, 2022, @HubermanLab tweeted, “Research supported steps for being an early riser (& improved mood, strength, cognition”): 1 Maximize early day sunlight, 2 No caffeine or naps post 3 pm, 3 Minimize post 8pm light exposure, 4 Exercise w/i 2 hours of waking, 5 Go to bed 2-3 hrs earlier.” This tweet gives the false impression that early rising will lead to success and that people can significantly change their sleep and wake times, paying no heed to the fact people have differing chronotypes.
Why do these pop-culture scientists continue to make ridiculous statements like this? Why does it seem they are not considering how what they say impacts poor sleepers?
I suspect these experts believe they need to package their ideas in a way that seeks to elicit emotion to encourage action, and the emotion they decide to create is fear. They create the fear and then present their ideas—in toolboxes, books, and podcasts—as the solution.
They give a prescription for intervention. But what most sleepers need is a prescription for understanding. When media-savvy experts are so intent on creating sizzle around their ideas, they ultimately ignite wildfires of sleep anxiety.
The other problem is the sleep medicine subspecialty does not challenge these harmful ideas. Sleep professionals on the whole tend to dismiss the publicity as positive for “at least raising awareness of sleep issues.” But, despite the people who this fear-mongering may have helped, it does not justify so many people sleeping poorly because of scary expert advice.
Also, I suspect many sleep professionals have professional and/or personal relationships with these experts, which gives professionals pause about publicly engaging in the conversation. What’s more, Walker, Huberman, and the other media-savvy scientists have massive audiences, so some sleep professionals stay quiet in hopes of one day appearing on the popular podcasts or social feeds.
I implore the sleep medicine field to speak out: Challenge the hyperbole, the sizzle, and douse the flames of sleep anxiety when you see inaccurate or fear-mongering statements targeted at the people you are trying to help. Use the media, social and traditional, to emphasize that sleep shouldn’t be scary and that real help is available.