By Heather A. Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN
Sleep deprivation extends far beyond lack of energy. From depressed mood and decreased cognitive ability, inadequate pillow time can also limit the immune system’s ability to fight off colds and infections, impair judgment and memory, and put a damper on sex drive.
A recent study found that weekday sleep debt may be linked to worse metabolic health, including lower HDL cholesterol levels, impaired glucose metabolism, elevated levels of C-reactive protein or CRP (a marker for inflammation), and impaired thyroid function . This research, and many others , also show that fewer hours of sleep is associated with overeating, poor food choices, and weight gain.
Several of the reasons why less sleep can equate to weight gain are:
* less energy and therefore less physical activity;
* increased levels of the hunger hormone (ghrelin) plus decreased levels of the hormone that signals satiety/fullness (leptin) ;
* increased levels of endocannabinoids – hormones that promote eating for pleasure, or so-called ‘hedonic eating’ – that triggers a preference for high-fat and sugary foods ;
* increased levels of the stress hormone (cortisol) that shifts the body into energy conservation mode, which can contribute to weight gain over time (additionally, researchers find that stress may cause people to eat more than usual and choose junk food instead of healthier options );
* consuming more calories overall in a day, even if foods consumed are healthy , simply due to the fact that amount of awake time is extended, meaning more time to eat.
Of course every person is different, and the “correct” duration of sleep is unique to each of us, a recent UK study of more than 1,600 adults found that people who sleep fewer than 7 hours nightly are more likely to have an overweight or obese BMI when compared to individuals who get 7 or more hours of sleep. In general, a good recommendation is to aim for a solid 7 to 9 hours every night. (A full nine hours is the sweet spot for me!)
Tips to Get Your ZZZs + Improve Sleep Quality
Power up during the day. Physical activity during the day, promotes better, more restful sleep at night.
* According to a national health survey from the CDC, 150 minutes of moderate activity per week (the minimum weekly recommendation for all adults from the Dietary Guidelines of Americans 2015-2020) led to a 65% improvement in sleep quality of responders .
* However, working out right before bed increases adrenaline and brain activity, and can make it difficult to get to sleep. If you typically don’t unwind well before hitting the sack, give yourself a buffer of 2 to 3 hours between your workout and bed time.
Power down at night. After a full day – particularly stressful or just run-on-the-mill routine – taking time to unplug and relax so you not only fall asleep more easily, but also prevent a “too active” brain from waking you up in the middle of the night.
* Research shows that exposure to bright screens (e.g., televisions, phones, computers, tablets) increases brain activity, and also delays the body’s natural trigger to release the sleep-friendly hormone melatonin when in a dark environment. About 1 hour before bed time, switch off or put away your screen devices and if you can, dim the lights a bit.
* Create a relaxed environment with peaceful background noise.
* Other techniques to help you relax and calm down for a quicker trip to dreamland is guided meditation (either at night or during the day), and the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.
* One kind-of-exception to the rule is employing an app to track your sleep habits.
Maximize melatonin. Certain foods are natural sources of melatonin, and certain nutrients help our bodies promote its utilization, for yet more (delicious) ways to help improve sleep quality.
* Melatonin is found in tart cherries (and their juice), oranges, pineapple, oatmeal and walnuts.
* Additionally, magnesium and vitamin B6 help the body produce and release melatonin – look to almonds, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), spinach, lentils and dark chocolate for magnesium; chickpeas, bananas, fish and fortified cereal for a boost of vitamin B6.
Avoid stimulants and disruptive foods. There are also foods that interfere with the body’s ability to fall and stay asleep. While every person responds differently, a few culprits commonly to blame for sleep disruption:
* Caffeine is a natural stimulant, and some individuals are very susceptible to its effects; others not as much. I, for one, have trouble falling asleep if even a small amount passes my lips after noon – see what works for you.
* Research suggests that while alcohol may increase drowsiness, it also suppresses entry into the rapid eye movement (REM) – a sleep pattern crucial for a restful night’s sleep.
* Eating a full meal close to bedtime, particularly one containing high-fat and high-protein foods that require more from your body to digest, may contribute to restlessness for some. Some experts recommend a “front-loading” of calories in a day, putting a curfew on the kitchen 2, 3 or even 4 hours before going to bed. (Bonus: This focus on earlier eating not only benefits weight loss efforts, but may also be linked to decreased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension .)
The main takeaway from all of this is that sleep is integral to the human body, and getting enough quality shut-eye may help improve your mental, emotional and physical well-being. More than an increased risk of impaired judgment and feelings of sluggishness, people often make poor food choices when sleep deprived, which can lead to weight gain and obesity; not to mention an increased risk of a variety of mild to serious health issues.
Implement or focus more on some of the tips above, and set yourself up for 7 to 9 hours of snoozeland success. Pleasant dreaming!
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