We tend to think of sleep as a time when the mind and body shut down. But this is not the case; sleep is an active period in which a lot of important processing, restoration, and strengthening occurs. We spend about a third of our lives asleep and how much you have and the quality of it matters even more than you probably realise. Sleep matters. Without enough sleep, you create an uphill battle in so many different ways. You sabotage your weight and any other health goals you might have. Here I’m going to share exactly why it matters so much and what to do about it.
Sleep deprivation and weight gain
Sleep and weight are intimately related. If you aren’t getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you’re setting yourself up to be hungrier, eating more, weighing more, and finding it even harder to lose that weight you’ve been trying to shift. It’s not all in your head.
We know from research that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, one-year-olds need roughly 11 to 14 hours, school age children between 9 and 11, and teenagers between 8 and 10. Scientists now know that, if you are consistently surviving on too little sleep, you’re not going to be functioning at your best, focusing properly or thinking creatively. The cherry on top is that you are also sabotaging any attempts to take control of healthy eating and your weight.
Sleep deprivation causes hormonal imbalances, and I’m not talking about PMT, but the hormones that directly affect your feelings of hunger. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone that makes you feel more hungry) and leptin (the satiety hormone that tells you when you’ve had enough to eat) are majorly disrupted when you are not sleeping enough. So, after a night of lousy sleep, if you feel like you need to eat a banquet, it’s not all in your head but rather your hormones turning you into a ravenous beast. The feast you desire is going to be filled with high-carb, starchy foods and not the healthier (yet still tasty) ones you might otherwise choose.
The stress placed on the body by lack of sleep also reduces your body’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin. Insulin is a fat-storage hormone that regulates the levels of glucose in the blood. When it becomes less responsive to glucose it can contribute to weight gain.
Sleep deprivation, raised stress hormones and hormonal imbalances
Sleep deprivation also affects stress hormones, and then stress in turn messes with your sleep. It’s a vicious circle. Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones and should follow a specific pattern throughout the day: rising to a peak in the morning to energise you and get you out of bed, and then gradually tailing off towards evening time so that you can drift off into sleep. Prolonged periods of stress can create an imbalance in this daily rhythm that may lead to cortisol levels being high come night-time. This can leave you feeling tired but wired – absolutely exhausted, but your head is buzzing when you hit the pillow. That alone is enough to make you feel even more stressed and less able to sleep.
During the perimenopause (the transition to the menopause), those night sweats caused by falling levels of oestrogen are enough to keep anyone from restful slumber. But did you know that oestrogen also allows your body to better use the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin, which is the precursor to the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin? And, during menopause, when oestrogen levels fall steadily, progesterone falls off a cliff. This is a problem for women because progesterone helps you fall asleep faster and experience fewer disruptions to your sleep. (A similar scenario plays out during menstruation).
Blood sugar roller coaster and sleep
If your diet is high in starchy carbs like bread, rice, pasta and sugar, it creates blood sugar fluctuations which can lead to significant sleep disturbances. So, If you have blood sugar levels that are either too high or too low overnight, you may find yourself tired through the next day. For example, a sugar ‘crash’ at night triggers a release of cortisol to wake you up at the wrong time, and this can shift you out of deep sleep into a lighter sleep phase. Moving to a way of eating that balances your blood sugar can significantly help improve the quality of your sleep.
Risks of sleeping too much
You always hear about health problems associated with people not getting enough sleep, but what about getting too much sleep? Research has found that for most adults, getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night is ideal. Although a small percentage of people actually need 10 hours, regularly sleeping more than the suggested amount may increase the risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, headache, back pain, and heart disease.
TIPS FOR A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP
Unfortunately, a person can’t just accumulate sleep deprivation and then log many hours of sleep to make up for it (although paying back “sleep debt” is always a good idea if you’re sleep deprived). The best sleep habits are consistent, healthy routines.
There are a number of things you can do (or not do) to improve your chances of sleeping well.
- Stick to a sleep schedule of the same bedtime and wake up time, even on the weekends. This helps to regulate your body’s clock and could help you fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.
- If you have trouble sleeping, avoid naps, especially in the afternoon. Power napping may help you get through the day, but if you find that you can’t fall asleep at bedtime, eliminating even short catnaps may help.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, nor too cold.
- Use your bed only for sleep and sex. This may help you completely switch off.
- Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Eye masks can be useful.
- Use bright light to help manage your circadian rhythms. Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning. This will keep your circadian rhythms in check.
- Your body needs time to shift into sleep mode, so spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity such as reading. For some people, using an electronic device such as a laptop can make it hard to fall asleep, because the particular type of light emanating from the screens of these devices is activating to the brain. If you have trouble sleeping, avoid electronics before bed or in the middle of the night.
- Try to take some gentle exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.
- Keep your feet and hands warm. Wear warm socks and/or mittens or gloves to bed if you struggle with cold extremities.
- Eating a heavy meal within four hours of going to bed.
- Exercising within 4 hours of sleeping
- Drinking caffeine in the afternoon – including coffee, ‘normal’ and green tea, and colas.
- Using alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol can make sleep more disturbed.
- Eating sugar after 7pm
You will almost certainly have read some of these tips before. Just knowing the information is not going to give you the restful night’s sleep you are looking for. The only thing that counts is action. If you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that lack of sleep is at the root of not getting organised enough to plan your meals ahead of time (which may result in your feeling forced to grab a coffee and croissant on the way to work), has you craving sugary snacks you wouldn’t otherwise eat and feeling like a shadow of your normal self, I invite you to put getting more and/or better sleep at the top of your to-do list this week to see what a difference it can make.
You might have a whole list of things on your list already this week but focusing on this ONE thing might be what you need to see a real shift in everything else.