Poor sleep, or not enough sleep, affects a slew of our bodies’ key systems, health and functions, from cognitive abilities to coronary heart disease, diabetes and even a shorter life expectancy. Poor sleep is associated with a generally poorer quality of life.
Most adults need about eight hours of good-quality sleep per night to feel well and function optimally. Eight hours is a good baseline, however each of us has a slightly different ideal or set point when it comes to hours of sleep needed per day. Some need a bit more and some a bit less.
- Children aged 6-12 need more sleep, 9-12 hours per day.
- Teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep per 24 hours.
- Elderly people may experience changes in sleep patterns but still need seven or eight hours per day.
One or two sleepless nights may leave you fatigued, unfocused and short-tempered. Chronic poor sleep is a more serious situation, but there are treatments and tactics that may help. And if they don’t, the experts at the INTEGRIS Sleep Disorders Center of Oklahoma are ready to see you.
Why does poor-quality or insufficient sleep hinder weight loss efforts, or contribute to weight gain?
First let’s talk about hormones. Sleep affects two crucial hormones whose functions are related to appetite. Leptin is a hormone that decreases appetite and ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates appetite. It’s referred to as the ‘hunger hormone.’ When your tummy growls, that’s ghrelin doing its job. When you are mid-meal and realize that you’re comfortably full, but not stuffed, that’s leptin at work.
Poor sleep results in low leptin levels and high ghrelin levels. Low levels of leptin, produced by fat cells, tells your body that starvation is occurring and that your appetite needs to increase. Ghrelin is an appetite stimulant, so a high ghrelin level means you’ll want to eat more.
Scientist Shahrad Taheri conducted a sleep study involving more than 1,000 volunteers as a part of the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study, which began in 1989. Subjects logged their sleep habits and, every four years, had blood drawn and underwent other tests to measure physiological variables during their slumber.
People who regularly slept fewer than five hours a night had 16 percent less leptin and 15 percent less ghrelin than people who were well rested, sleeping an average of eight hours per night. In other words, their bodies’ starvation signals kicked in AND their appetites increased. Together, these disruptions create the perfect storm.
Studies have found that short sleep also affects the types of foods we choose to eat. People who are sleep deprived tend to choose foods that are high in calories and carbohydrates. Makes some sense. Those foods are comforting and refined/simple carbs provide quick (albeit un-sustained) energy.
A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition aggregated data collected in nearly a dozen smaller studies involving about 175 people. In each, participants were deprived various amounts of sleep over fairly short periods of time, ranging from a day to two weeks. Calorie intake was measured, and people who were sleep deprived averaged 385 extra calories per day.
More than that, the extra calories were mainly in the form of increased fat. Participants also tended to eat less protein when sleep deprived. Two things that did not change were carbohydrate consumption and activity level. More calories plus the same activity means weight gain. Averaging an extra 385 calories a day with no increase in activity could yield 3-4 pounds per month, or 36-48 pounds per year. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle: poor food choices and overeating affect your sleep, and poor sleep negatively affects your food choices.
Sleep is intricately connected to metabolic processes in the body, and our collective poor sleep habits are pushing the limits of our body’s ability to regulate some of these functions. A century ago we slept, on average, nine hours a night. These days we sleep, on average, a scant 6.8 hours a night. Worse than that, nearly one in three adults reports sleeping fewer than six hours per night. At the same time, cases of diabetes and obesity have increased dramatically.
Certainly food quantity and quality choices and activity levels play a role in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, but the impact of irregular or poor-quality sleep is being increasingly recognized. It’s a piece of the puzzle for overall good health as well as healthy weight.
Ways to up your sleep hygiene game
Be an early bird. If you’re up and at ‘em bright and early, not only will you get the worm, you’ll also find that you’re more likely to be tired by bedtime.
Exercise regularly. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise or movement on most days. This could be gardening, dancing while you cook, doing a few planks or pushups during commercials or talking a nice walk. Just don’t exercise strenuously in the 2-3 hour window before bed.
Develop (and stick to) a bedtime routine. What relaxes you? A warm bath or a good book might be good places to start. Turn off the television and avoid other forms of screen time in the hour or so before bed.
Avoid nicotine in any form. Nicotine is a stimulant and makes it harder to fall asleep.
Say no to caffeine after 2pm. It’s also a stimulant and sleep saboteur.
Nix late afternoon naps. Naps should be taken before 3pm and should not exceed about 20 minutes.
Go for comfort…and warm tootsies. Choose sleepwear that is warm enough, cool enough and nonrestrictive. Consider sleeping in socks. Warming up your feet (and hands) makes the blood vessels dilate (open up), a process called vasodilation, which releases heat through the skin and helps lower your core body temp, which signals your brain that it’s time to sleep.
Don’t eat right before bed. A small snack is fine but a big meal before bed is a known disruptor.
Get your room sleep ready. Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and at a comfortable temperature. For most, that’s in the 65 to 67°F range.
Getting good sleep can be harder than it seems. If you have questions on how to achieve better sleep and overall wellness, talk to your INTEGRIS Health primary care provider.
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