Sleep has emerged as one of the most fascinating and important factors affecting our health and wellness. There is some old-school common-sense pieces we all know, like if you don’t get enough sleep, you are going to wake up tired and feel tired for the whole day. It turns out that “feeling tired” is just the tip of the ice-berg, lack of sleep can actually wreak havoc on your system in a number of ways.
Here are 3 key areas of concern emerging from the latest scientific research:
1. Losing sleep makes us eat more and gain weight.
One of the reasons that happens is due to an increase in our hunger hormone called “Ghrelin”. Not only do we get hungrier, apparently we tend to be hungry for the types of foods that contribute to easy weight gain, things like potato chips and sweets. Our brains seem to struggle with our impulse control, making it hard to say “no!”.
Brain researchers found that the loss of sleep affected a part of the brain that runs our motivation to eat, it’s that part of the brain where we make rational decisions and are able to understand the consequences. This area showed diminished activity.
Don’t let this tidbit keep you awake, but losing just a few hours of sleep a few nights in a row can result in an increase of two pounds!!
2. It messes with your hormones.
Not just the hunger hormone, ghrelin. Another is cortisol, a stress hormone whose levels are supposed to be highest in the morning to help wake us up, and the lowest at night during sleep.
But cortisol can spike up when we are pretending to be night-owls and not getting to sleep until about midnight. We have all experienced that feeling of “a second wind”. It is very familiar to college students pulling “all-nighters”, to new mom’s with wakeful infants, and to men and women who wait for the “quiet time” when everyone is asleep to “catch-up” on whatever they feel they are behind on. You know who you are!
So what’s the big deal? Turns out cortisol is not just a stress hormone, it is also a fat-storage hormone. So you can eat a perfectly healthy, energy appropriate amount of food during the day – but stay up late surfing the internet, watching TV, or engaging in the other examples given of staying up late, and you become an efficient, mean, fat-storage machine.
3. It contributes to the development of chronic health conditions.
These include: Hypertension, Insulin Resistance, Type 2 Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome to name a few. The increased fat is part of that problem, but there is a second culprit, systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation is thought to be the root cause of many life-style and nutrition-related chronic diseases today.
There is much more to be explored on this topic but what steps can you take now to improve your sleep?
Here are my top 6 suggestions:
Take the TV out of the bedroom. Period. You won’t die, really you won’t. If you want to watch TV you can do it in another room in order to stop the habitual association of bed = TV watching. This also goes for computers, cell phones and most e-readers. These devices are signaling your brain to stay awake and keep your whole body running full-tilt instead of letting it rest.
Create a bedtime routine.- Target bed/sleep time for 10:00 pm and allow for a full 7to 8 hours of sleep. It is really helpful to create a wind-down ritual for ourselves. It creates a new set of health-promoting habits. Much like when we were children and knew it was bedtime when our parents would tell us to brush out teeth, get our PJ’s on, get in bed and either read or have a story read to us.
If you are really sleepy during the day and people around you complain that you snore like a chain-saw, you might need to be evaluated for a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea.
If you are having an after dinner snack – go for protein, not sweets that can give you a rapid blood sugar rise then crash. This definitely can interfere with sleep.
Keep your caffeine intake to the morning hours – try to go caffeine-free after midday.
Don’t drink alcohol before bed to help you relax, thinking it will help you sleep better. It initially feels like that, but alcohol is a well-know sleep disruptor that stimulates the central nervous system.
Now go get some nice, delicious, energy-restoring sleep!
I'm Carmina McGee, MS, RDN, and my mission is to support women to live their happiest, healthiest lives and THRIVE!