I’ve always been mystified by the characterization of weight management as a simple matter of ‘calories in vs. calories out’ – a reductionist approach that leaves plenty unsaid.
Our weight may be influenced by a myriad of factors including metabolism, hormones, medication, sleep patterns and stress. And while none of these factors absolve us of personal responsibility for our health, they may mean that the picture is more complicated than we are often led to believe.
◊ Sleep Function
On a practical level, we all understand the importance of sleep and how it can facilitate or undermine our mental acuity, work productivity and the quality of our interactions with peers and loved ones.
Sleep is critical for restoration (growth, repair and rejuvenation), learning, memory consolidation, mental wellness, hormone function and immune defense.
There is also a mounting body of evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation increases our risk of obesity by altering brain function and disrupting the delicate balance of hormones that regulate our appetite, stress levels and glucose metabolism (more below).
◊ How much Sleep
The number of hours of sleep needed to maintain ideal balance will vary depending on our age, lifestyle, health and biochemical individuality. For adults, somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep is generally regarded as ideal.
◊ Sleep Deprivation & Weight Gain
Lack of sleep often leaves us feeling physically and mentally weaker and less motivated. In addition to making it more likely for us to skip our exercise regimens (or be unable to workout as productively as we might otherwise), studies also indicate that sleep deprivation makes us more inclined to eat greater quantities of higher-calorie, lower nutrient foods. This may be to make up for the energy deficit or, as another study suggests, because something fundamentally changes in our sleep deprived brain that makes us vulnerable to these dietary choices.
Sleep deprivation also appears to trigger powerful hormonal changes in our bodies:
- Numerous studies show that lack of sleep is associated with elevated ghrelin levels (a hunger stimulating hormone) and lower leptin levels (an appetite-suppressing hormone). The result is that we end up with more chemical messengers signaling us to keep eating than those alerting us to stop.
- Lack of sleep also gives rise to higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) that, when in balance, operates to regulate important body functions. However, elevated and prolonged cortisol has been associated with a number of negative health effects including: impaired blood sugar control, high blood pressure, lowered immunity and abdominal obesity.
- A compelling study also showed that just one night of total sleep deprivation was enough to significantly reduce resting metabolic rate (our body’s ability to burn calories at rest) in adult men in comparison to those obtaining 8 hours of sleep. Resting metabolic rate is the energy required to perform our vital body functions (breathing and heart beating for example) while at rest. Since up to 75% of the calories we consume during the day are used by our bodies for this purpose, this is not an insignificant finding.
◊ Dietary & Lifestyle Strategies for Improving Sleep Quality
If it were as easy as lying in bed for seven hours to achieve blissful, restorative sleep, we would all be doing it. According to recent statistics, close to 40% of North Americans report sleeping less than seven hours a night with many experiencing recurrent sleep trouble.
With this in mind, some dietary and lifestyle tips to help promote a good night’s rest:
- Room Climate – a comfortable mattress/bedding and a cool and dark room are essential to a good night’s rest. If you have furry friends who are sleeping with you, no matter how much you may love them, now is a good time to think about recreating the sleeping boundaries and moving your pets into a different room during the sleeping hours. If you find that you are waking from your partner’s movements, consider split mattresses in a singular frame which can reduce motion transfer or, depending on the circumstances, separate beds close by.
- Avoid Stimulants — If you are not already doing so, consider limiting caffeine to the morning (or phasing it out 6-8 hours before you plan on sleeping). Caffeine is a stimulant that mimics the effects of adrenaline in the body and increases blood pressure. Caffeine can also interfere with the brain’s production of a sleep-inducing chemical called adenosine. Studies show that caffeine not only makes it difficult to fall asleep, it can also shorten the duration of sleep. Keep in mind as well that stimulation comes in many forms. Turning off your computer, phone and television monitors several hours before bed can be an excellent way of decompressing the nervous system and preparing for rest. You can ask anyone in my family how ruthlessly I apply this practice in my own life — I have found it to be enormously helpful.
- Alcohol — There is a common misconception that alcohol assists in getting a good night’s rest. While it’s true that alcohol may help us fall asleep faster (it is a depressant that slows motor and brain function), it’s also true that it disrupts the second half of the sleep cycle and interferes with critical REM sleep.
- Evening Meals — Large meals at the end of the day put a heavy burden on our digestive system at a time when our bodies should be focusing on rest and repair. While there will always be exceptions, try to keep your evening meals reasonable portioned and as clean (close to nature) as possible. If you know that certain foods cause you digestive upset (even though you may enjoy them) such as spicy foods for example, consider moving them over to your lunchtime meal instead of the evening.
- Tart Cherries and Almighty Melatonin — You may have heard of the importance of sleeping in a dark room. This is because the production of the powerful sleep-regulating hormone melatonin is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light. What you may not know however, is that tart cherries are a bioactive dietary source of melatonin. A compelling study recently published in the European Journal of Nutrition showed that consuming tart cherry juice twice a day gave rise to significantly higher levels of melatonin in participants who experienced substantive increases in sleep time and sleep efficiency over the control group. Benefits in sleep duration and sleep quality were observed in both men and women.
- Consider a Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock — Have you ever noticed how much better you feel when you are allowed to wake up naturally (based on your own sleep cycle) vs. being woken up by a set time alarm clock or someone/something else? Sleep cycle alarm clocks claim to monitor the phases of your sleep by monitoring your movement and targeting the best time to wake you accordingly (you set the time range). And while there is no hard science behind their effectiveness, Apple’s sleep cycle alarm clock, for example, remains one of the company’s most popular apps and continues to receive top user reviews. If it works for you, it works for you.
- Taming the Monkey Mind — One of the toughest opponents we will encounter to a good night’s rest is our overactive brain. Calming our bodies in preparation for the more difficult work of calming our minds can be a highly effective tool in achieving a good night’s rest. The formula will be different for each of us, but here are some ideas to experiment with. Many of these techniques can be useful not only for falling asleep initially but also for falling back to sleep when we wake in the night:
♦ Daytime exercise (it is generally best to reserve higher intensity/aerobic exercise for earlier in the day) ♦ A relaxing evening walk in the fresh air ♦ Progressive Muscle Relaxation ♦ Breathing Exercises ♦ Meditation ♦ Yoga ♦ Journaling ♦ Visualization ♦ Music (a wonderful free source: calm.com) ♦ Soothing Herbal Teas (such as valerian root and chamomile) ♦ Essential oils (lavender and jasmine are notably helpful in connection with sleep though my personal favorite in the winter is frankincense — dab a little on your wrist and/or pillow case or add a few drops to your evening bath water or bedroom humidifier) ♦ Integrative Therapies (such as cognitive therapy and acupuncture) as well as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which combines elements of cognitive therapy, breathing and yoga.
- Investigate other underlying Causes — If you are living with chronic and persistent sleep disruption, be sure to follow-up with your trusted health care practitioner to investigate further. Obstructive sleep apnea for example, is one of the most common medical conditions that leaves people feeling tired.
The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.