Updated: Sep 15
Out of all the things you can do to improve your health, sleep is the one often overlooked. No
matter how clean your diet or how often you work out, if you don’t get adequate, restful sleep,
you will suffer the mental and physical consequences.
You need 7-9 hours a sleep a night for the brain to do several functions including: consolidation of learning and memory, transfer information from short to long term memory, form new synapses and prune synapses. These are things the brain can only do when we are sleeping. On average, Americans get about 7 hours of sleep, down from 8.5 in the 1950’s. Data from the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study shows that less than 6 hours and more than 9 hours can cause problems. In persons sleeping less than 8 hours there was a proportional increase in BMI to decreased sleep. So the less sleep you get over time the higher your BMI. BMI refers to Body Mass Index, a measure of body fat based on height and weight. This increase in BMI may be due to the effect lack of sleep has on appetite hormones Leptin and Ghrelin. Leptin is important for letting you know when you are full and Ghrelin stimulates hunger cues when the stomach is empty. Some people notice an increase in hunger and/or blood sugar instability following a night with poor sleep.
Sleep deprivation may lead to microsleep, a term that refers to falling asleep for a few seconds while working or driving. This increases the incident of drowsy driving which is an impairment similar to driving intoxicated. Other impairments that result from sleep deprivation include an increase in the release of cortisol which leads to impairment of the immune function and makes you more vulnerable to illness. It also makes it harder to concentrate, focus and function in general. A Medline review of observational studies from 1960-2005 found that female night shift workers. were 1.51x more likely to develop breast cancer. Men who worked the night shift were found to be at a 34% increased of developing prostrate cancer. The younger a man was when he started this shift (and the longer he stayed on it) the greater the risk.
There are several things that can lead to impaired sleep. Alcohol may decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. However, it also decreases REM sleep (dreaming) in the first half of the sleep states. This leads to possible REM rebounds later in the night where a person may have nightmares or waking up sweating. Basically a person spends more time in the light stages of sleep and not in the restorative stages. Alcohol can also lead to drops in blood sugars in the middle of the night. Caffeine can be an issue for those who are slow to metabolize it and disrupts the ability to fall asleep. Caffeine also does not promote wakefulness, it just masks tiredness. Blue light is another area of concern and has the most profound effect on melatonin production and circadian clock. Sources of blue light include digital screens (TV, computers, laptops, smart phones and tablets).
There are several things you can do to improve sleep time and quality. Experts recommend you sleep in cool environment (60-65 degrees F). Daily exercise leads to improved sleep which conversely leads to more energy to exercise. Try to get at least 30 minutes a day but not too close to bedtime. Exposure to bright sunlight at least 30 minutes a day has benefits on sleep quality and limit exposure to blue light 3 hours before bed, 1 hour at a minimum. If after implementing these strategies you still struggle with getting restorative sleep, see a doctor.
Candice Chaloupka, LMHC, Health Coach, Personal Trainer
(Information cited from workshop featuring Dr. Michael Lara – American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
and Sleep Expert)
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