Each day, millions of Americans set their sights on eating a healthier diet. These efforts are often to no avail, and many blame their lack of will power and other seemingly uncontrollable factors for their lack of success. Unsuccessful dieters may, however, be forgetting one critical component: getting good quality sleep. While many people may consider sleep to be merely one of life’s simple pleasures, sleep is actually a vital piece in the puzzle of healthy living.
Chronic sleep deprivation, an increasingly pervasive phenomenon, may be associated with the rise in obesity. In a recent cohort study of over 80,000 adults in Thailand, sleeping less than 6 hours a night was associated with obesity and significant weight gain over a 4-year period. This phenomenon may also hold true for adolescents. In a study of over 3,000 European adolescents, published in the International Journal of Obesity, those who reported sleeping less than 8 hours per night had higher levels of body fat and were more sedentary.
The association between sleep restriction and obesity goes beyond mere statistical correlations. In a study of 30 adults published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, more calories were consumed following nights of only 4 hours of sleep as compared to nights of 8-9 hours of sleep. The increased caloric intake resulted largely from consuming fats, particularly saturated fats. Furthermore, in a laboratory study to be published in the March 2012 supplement of Accident Analysis and Prevention, 24 healthy men were given either a 4-hour or a 6-hour opportunity to sleep each day for 12 days. Those who slept for 4 hours each day snacked more frequently than those who slept for 6 hours per day, and those who slept for only 4 hours were also more likely to snack on sweets. Failure to match these unhealthy eating habits with increased physical activity, which is likely with persistent inadequate rest, may, over time, catch up with you in the form of extra, unwanted pounds.
Biology may be more to blame than your will power when it comes to unhealthy eating habits in response to poor sleep. In a recent report published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 12 normal weight males were studied for the effects of normal sleep and sleep deprivation on the brain’s response to images of food. Interestingly, after the night of sleep deprivation, the males were hungrier and had a bigger appetite than after a night of normal sleep. Additionally, FMRI scans after the night of sleep deprivation showed an increased activation of the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with hunger.
Not enough sleep may also result in metabolic changes in your body that also contribute to the hunger and appetite that, when indulged, may lead to weight gain. In a 2004 study of 12 healthy, young men published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that sleep restriction was associated with decreased leptin and increased ghrelin, hormones responsible for suppressing and activating appetite, respectively. Hunger and appetite also increased with less sleep, and unfortunately, cravings were not for fruits and vegetables, but rather for foods high in calories and carbohydrates.
With all of this research in mind, individuals seeking a healthy lifestyle may benefit from prioritizing good-quality sleep alongside diet and exercise. But, what is “enough” sleep, and what’s the secret to getting it?
According to researchers from the National Sleep Foundation, “enough sleep” is when you’re able to awaken spontaneously and fully, and feel “fresh and alert” throughout the day. For most people, 7-8 hours is a “good” night’s sleep, but this, of course, varies from individual to individual, from day to day and even across the lifespan.
People may grow used to restricted sleep and not even realize that it has pervaded their life. Here are some signs that you may have unknowingly fallen victim to unhealthy sleep restriction:
- Caffeinated coffee and other stimulants are a must for you to feel awake and alert.
- Sitting for a while leaves you feeling unfocused and unproductive.
- You, and others, often find that you’re in a negative mood.
- You frequently feel forgetful.
You may not be able to control everything affecting your sleep, but the Mayo Clinic provides some tips that may help you catch some much needed Z’s:
- Wake up and go to bed at the same times everyday. If you can’t fall asleep, even at your “scheduled” time, get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel ready to try sleeping again.
- Avoid going to bed hungry or with a very full stomach.
- Avoid stimulants like nicotine and caffeine a few hours before bed.
- Avoid alcohol a few hours before bed. A drink may, at first, be relaxing, but alcohol can disrupt your sleep throughout the night.
- Develop a bedtime ritual that involves relaxing activities like reading or listening to quiet music. Stay away from “screen time,” as it may interfere with your sleep.
- Create a comfortable environment with just the right temperature, darkness, mattress, and pillow.
- Limit daytime napping to the afternoon and to no more than 30 minutes.
- Get plenty of exercise during the day, but not too close to bedtime. Otherwise, you may have difficulty falling and staying asleep
- Find ways to manage stress so it doesn’t interfere with your sleep. If your mind is muddled with all sorts of stressful details at bedtime, try writing down your stressors and making a commitment to yourself to table them until the morning.
If, despite your own efforts, plenty of restful sleep continues to elude you, inform your doctor, and possibly consult a sleep professional. Sleep Medicine Services of Western Massachusetts, LLC has offices in both Amherst and Springfield. For other options in your area, visit SleepCenters.org. Whether you’re looking for a possible key to losing weight, or you simply want to feel fresh, alert and healthy, making quality sleep a priority may be worthwhile. Sleep is more than just a luxury; it’s an essential facet of good health.
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