Sleep. We all know what it is and why it’s important…don’t we? At a young age we are told relentlessly how important it is to go to bed on time, not to stay up too late, and more importantly – not to wake up mom and dad. As an adult, you may have a vague idea of its connection to health and try your best to acquire enough shut-eye. But what about getting good sleep? A much more elusive concept, agreed? Those lacking in sleep quantity, quality, or both can be the first to vouch that even minor deficits can crumble the foundation of their well-being. Think of a first time mom with a newborn, the midnight shift worker, or a stressed out college student working and going to school full time. You can see the marks of deprivation all over their face and exuded in their body language; even before you have the chance to unconsciously utter the obvious “You look tired.” Sure sleep zaps energy and can turn any pleasant Peter into a pessimistic Pam, we all know this, but what else is sleep responsible for and why should we care so much?
Before I delve into the mysterious, dream-filled, enigma that is quality sleep, you may be asking yourself, “Why is this Dietitian spending her time chatting about sleep when there are roughly a trillion perplexing nutrition issues out there?” That is a great question that will most definitely be answered by the time you finish reading this post, so be patient dear reader. Back to good sleep and why it’s more important than ANYTHING when it comes to wellness. Yes anything, and this is coming from the mouth of an individual who ceaselessly studies nutrition. Sleep even trumps diet. Missing out on sleep will brutally chip away at practically every area of your health; from mood, to digestion, hormones, cognition, and proper immune functioning…just to name a few. I’ll touch on just a few reasons why achieving good sleep is insanely vital to your health, because if I covered every reason we’d be here all night, and that would be ironically counter-productive, wouldn’t it?
First, I’d like to talk about how sleep relates to our brain power and function. Inadequate sleep prevents the cementing of new information. Can an old dog learn new tricks? Sure! But probably only if that pooch snoozed 8 hours each night. Why is this so? During the day, we take in new information constantly, and this is termed acquisition. After you’ve learned something cool, you may want to share said new, cool information with a buddy, this defined as recall. Both actions take place during wakeful daytime hours; however, one very crucial process occurs post shut-eye – consolidation. As well sleep, our minds are working hard to fortify all that new data you gave it earlier during the day; consolidation helps to make sure your memories are firm and intact1. What good is experiencing life and learning new things if you can’t recollect it the next day? Additionally, lack of sleep can affect the brain undesirably through decreased concentration, confusion, brain fog, poor alertness, and those fun “senior moments,” even if you’re in your 20 or 30’s2. So, get a full night’s rest so you are able to properly process this blog post and actually remember it tomorrow!
Indeed, proper sleep will help you to retain what you learn on a regular basis, which is great! However, perhaps you currently possess an excellent memory and have crystal clear thinking, so what’s the big deal? Mental acuity and stability are not the only actions that may decline when sleep trends down, your emotions can go awry too. Less than sufficient sleep has a direct effect on your mood. In fact, it can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger. The reason for this is thought to be related to an over-stimulation and imbalance of activity within the amygdala, a part of the brain involved with negative emotions. Sleep deprivation not only welcomes the dark clouds but can also prevent you from enjoying the sunny blue skies when they do arrive. It can be more difficult to relish in positive events when you are lacking in sleep3. So why wouldn’t you want to fully enjoy life’s highs while simultaneously cruising through the lows? If your answer is not a resounding, “Of course that’s what I want!” then perhaps you need a nap… you negative Nancy.
Now that we have looked at briefly at how sleep relates to mental and emotional health, what about the physical? Ahh yes, perhaps the part of our bodies we are more in-tune with. We often notice physical symptoms more because the manifestations are hard to ignore, such as getting sick. Do you find yourself catching that common cold all too often? Are you under the weather more than you’re out actually enjoying it? Those are pretty obvious signs that your immune system has taken a hit. The cells that make up the immune system, which help to protect you against stressors and pathogens, become dampened when proper rest is absent. We are talking about the very same cells that have the sole job of fighting more than just the common cold; things like cancer, heart disease, chronic inflammation, and neurological disorders4. Better sleep strengthens your immune system, meaning you are fully equipped to face whatever sickness predictably comes your way.
You may be part of the lucky few that still has not experienced any of the aforementioned detriments due to awful sleep, so let me ask you this, how is your weight? More specifically, how is your progress toward achieving a healthy weight? Are you stuck in a plateau that no diet or exercise can remedy? If you are like most Americans, you have a universal goal to lose weight; whether it be those last few stubborn pounds or maybe a great deal you desperately need to shed. I am here to inform you that poor sleep can sabotage any and all of your weight loss attempts.
The body is a savvy yet fierce organism that demands certain resources and when it is deprived of those resources, it will find ways to compensate. Unfortunately, the compensatory methods will likely be at the expense of other areas in your health. Whether you are not getting enough sleep or the quality of the sleep belongs in the dumpster, there is an unfavorable impact on our circadian rhythms (the body’s natural biological clock). The circadian rhythm has a large influence on countless biological functions at the level of the cell4. These processes are all mediated by our hormones, including those related to appetite and hunger.
If the body is not getting energy repletion through sleep, it will seek it elsewhere, yep you guessed it – food! Our body has two hormones primarily involved with appetite control through hunger and satiation, ghrelin and leptin. In a nutshell, ghrelin is secreted by the stomach and increases hunger while leptin is produced from fat cells, heart, and muscles and functions to decrease hunger. When our sleep is suboptimal, ghrelin increases while leptin decreases, in addition to a disturbance in the way the body regulates blood sugar metabolism5. This results in a double sabotage since not only does your appetite seem to sky rocket but you crave calorie dense foods and are less equipped to metabolize efficiently – resulting in weight gain. When’s the last time someone satisfied their midnight munchies with some raw carrot sticks? Exactly.
At this point you have been exposed to plenty of pro-sleep data and are (hopefully) determined to catch the elusive unicorn that is super sound slumber but are lacking direction. Fret not! I wouldn’t promote a life style change without also providing ways to get there! Below are some simple tips you can practice now to get the most out of your one-on-one time with your bed.
1) Consistency is key! Do your best to not only go to bed at the same time each night but also wake up at the same time each morning – yes this includes weekends. Your body cannot differentiate a hectic Monday morning from a lazy Saturday. Your body will appreciate this and fall in line with this dependable routine.
2) Aim for 7-9 hours per night. You knew this tip was coming. A very small portion of us can get by with less than that, but if your relationship with sleep is already on the rocks, then consider yourself a part of the majority and aim for the gold! And by gold, I mean getting those eight hours. Keep adding minutes to your bedtime until you reach adequate sleep.
3) Shut down those electronics! The blue light emitted from our electronics disrupt the brain’s sleep-wake cycle and promotes alertness. Avoid your phone, tablets, laptops, and TV a few hours prior to bedtime. Wind down with a good book – no (blue-light) harm, no foul.
4) Have a modest dinner. Your evening meal should not be the largest of your day nor should it be too close to your sleep. Heavy meals or hard to digest foods can make it difficult and uncomfortable once you’re in that horizontal position. Plus, it’s beneficial for our bodies to have a mini-fast as we sleep through the night. A sign that you did not overeat the night before is you are good and hungry for breaking your fast the next morning!
5) Soak up some rays! Waking up to sunshine and receiving ample exposure throughout the day helps to normalize our sleep hormones (melatonin and cortisol) making it much easier to wake up alert and fall asleep soundly.
6) Get moving! Exercise and daily activity have a positive and regulating effect on our stress hormones and overall hormone balance within the body.
7) Sip wisely. Caffeine and alcohol both can disturb sleep. No caffeine after 3 pm (effects can last 12 hours post consumption). Alcohol makes you feel sleepy, but be aware that it hinders overall sleep quality. Try an herbal tea or warm lemon water right before bed for a calming effect.
8) Cold and dark. Think of your bedroom as a sleep sanctuary – quiet, peaceful, completely dark and a little cool. Darkness optimizes melatonin and research supports that most people sleep better in a cooler environment (try setting your room temperature to 67F – then find what you are most comfortable with).
9) Write it out. If you find that your mind is racing the moment you close your eyes, keep a journal by your bed and write down your thoughts.
10) Aromatherapy. Essential oils (used topically or with a diffuser) aid with relaxation and reducing stress, which can create a peaceful state of mind. Lavender is known to induce sleep, but search the market and find the oil that is right for you!
There you have it! Maybe you have heard of some of these tricks, or maybe not. Maybe you thought that you were doomed to counting sheep forever and have prematurely developed a phobia to wool. Regardless, start incorporating as many of these tips as you can and watch your sleep quality improve2!
Hopefully it’s now a little clearer as to why this Dietitian holds sleep in such high regard, even higher than nutrition. A fantastic diet could mean nothing if the body is faced with imbalanced hormones and a decay in the processes responsible for the utilization of nutrients. Good mood, clear thinking, and sufficient energy for exercise will all be an illusion if sleep is compromised. Sleep is simply foundational. I cannot evoke this enough. Do what you can today to make the best of the moonlight hours. I guarantee your efforts will not go unnoticed – your body will begin to thank you in many ways. The more Zzz’s you get the more you’ll get out of life – slumber on folks!
- Alisha Lorincz, R.D.N.
- “Sleep, Learning, and Memory.” (2007, December 8). Healthy Sleep. Retrieved April 30, 2017 from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory.
- St. Pierre, B. “The Power of Sleep.” Precision Nutrition.Retrieved April 30, 2017 from http://www.precisionnutrition.com/power-of-sleep-infographic.
- Gordon, A. “Up All Night: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Mood.” (2013, August 15).Psychology Today. Retrieved April 30, 2017 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/between-you-and-me/201308/all-night-the-effects-sleep-loss-mood.
- Mercola, J. “Ignore This Essential Habit and Your Health Will Eventually Decline.” (2012, June 2). Mercola.com.Retrieved April 30, 2017 from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/06/02/can-sleeping-affect-immune-system.aspx.
- Kollias, H. “Leptin, ghrelin, and weight loss.” Precision Nutrition.Retrieved April 30, 2017 from http://www.precisionnutrition.com/leptin-ghrelin-weight-loss.