SLEEP IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS! I love my warm cozy bed, with my cat curled atop my feet and fresh lavender spray on my pillow. In my opinion, falling asleep and waking up refreshed are two of the best feelings in the world. When speaking to many of my friends, patients, and family members, they too have a similar fondness for sleep. So why are we all getting less and less of it?
American adults, on average, are sleeping far fewer hours than the recommended seven to eight every night (more is needed for babies, children, and adolescents), and even when we attempt to meet this goal, many of us struggle with falling and/or staying asleep. Sleep is vital to our health. Yet, in this go-go, constantly connected society, we have started deciding that sleep is optional, and falling below the recommended range is a “normal consequence” of adulthood. Sadly, poor sleep can cause so much more than dark circles under our eyes; it can directly impact body weight and, specifically, abdominal fat.
Hormones, Sleep & Weight
Your body recovers and resets while you sleep, and cutting into that time can throw off motivation, focus, and hormonal cues, including hormones that impact appetite. Research from the University of Chicago Medical Center has shown that decreased amounts of sleep can make us feel hungrier throughout the day. One mechanism of this is an increased production of ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone, released from the fundus of the stomach, that increases appetite. Higher levels of ghrelin have been shown to reduce energy expenditure and promote the retention of body fat. One study showed that pairing a weight loss program with adequate sleep (8.5 hours) promoted greater weight loss from body fat versus fat-free mass, whereas the same program paired with inadequate sleep (5.5 hours) showed more loss from fat-free mass and less from actual body fat.
Fatigue also expends a good amount of mental energy, zapping your ability to focus on proper nutrition, going to the gym, and withstanding unhealthy temptations throughout the day. Changing nutritional behaviors requires a lot of attention and mindfulness, both of which are difficult to accomplish with chronic fatigue.
Improve Your Sleep Quality & Quantity
Here’s how to improve your sleep hygiene. According to the National Sleep Foundation (https://sleepfoundation.org), start by following good pre-sleep habits. The foundation suggests setting a sleep schedule (meaning the time you go to bed and the time you wake up) and sticking to it, even on weekends. Next, reduce your exposure to screens leading up to bedtime. The blue light produced from screens on televisions, smart phones, tablets, and computers is very stimulating and can prevent your mind from shutting down. Aim to disconnect from these devices at least 30-60 minutes prior to bed. To relax your mind in preparation for better slumber, try deep breathing, meditation, or reading a book before bed. Make sure your room is dark and void of any digital light from phones or alarm clocks. Purchasing black out curtains can assist with this setting. Finally, ensure your habits throughout the day won’t set you up for failure at night. Aim to exercise, or at least take long walks, every day. Caffeine can disrupt your sleep, as it stays active in your system for nine hours post consumption, so try to limit your caffeine to mornings only. Alcohol can also prevent deep sleep and cause restlessness in the evenings, so go without a nightcap if you really want to rest soundly.
While every person’s needs are different, sleep should never be considered an option. Slowly increasing the duration of your sleep and improving the quality of your sleep will assist with losing weight and improving eating behaviors throughout the day. Reward yourself at night with blissful relaxation and sweet dreams, and your body will reward you with the multiple health benefits that come with those precious ZZZZZZZs.