Aside from the obvious (being tired and not being able to function well) it has been found that the lack of sleep can affect our health in more areas than thought before.  Sleep is like nutrition for the brain – most people need between 7 – 9 hours each night.  Get less than that and your body will react in ways that can be very harmful to your health.

Skimping on sleep sets your brain up to make bad decisions. It dulls activity in the brain’s frontal lobe (the decision-making and impulse control part).  So it’s a little like being drunk where you don’t have the mental clarity to make good decisions.  When you’re short on sleep, it’s easy to lean on a large latte to get moving. You might be tempted to skip exercise (too tired), get takeout for dinner, and then turn in late because you’re uncomfortably full.

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when people are sleep deprived, they ate bigger portions, late-night snacking increased as well as cravings for energy-dense, high-carbohydrate foods. Lack of sleep can turn even the most determined dieter straight to Ben & Jerry’s. A sleepy brain appears to crave junk food while also lacking the impulse control to say no. Why? Because insufficient sleep impacts your hunger and fullness hormones…Ghrelin (which signals your brain that it’s time to eat) is increased when you’re sleep-deprived which makes your brain say “let’s eat”; and also, Leptin levels (which cues your brain to say “I’m full”) plummet therefore again your body says “let’s eat even more!” Put these two together and here come the extra pounds.

On top of bad decisions and hormone imbalances, there is cortisol spike that come from too little sleep as well. The stress hormone cortisol signals your body to conserve energy to fuel your waking hours.  Conserving Energy = Storing Fat.  Finally, researchers say that just 4 days of sleep deprivation can also cause your body’s ability to process insulin to go awry which causes your body to hold on to sugar, starches and other food instead of processing them into energy. When your body doesn’t process fats from your bloodstream for energy, it stores them instead.

Here are some tips to not only help you get to sleep, but to have restful sleep as well:

Shut down all your electronics (cell phone, TV, computer) about an hour before bedtime and create a simple bedtime ritual – read, take a warm bath, etc.; Try to wake, eat dinner and retire each day on a steady schedule (at least during the week days); consume caffeinated drinks/foods and alcohol no later than 2 – 3 hours before bedtime. (Even though alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it can also cause you to wake up in the middle of the night and cause restless sleep); Cut fluids off by 8 p.m.; Avoid late night spicy or high fatty foods; Have a small snack 1 hour before bed – warm milk contains tryptophan (yes, like the turkey) and can aid in rest. (Other snacks that contain tryptophan are bananas, yogurt, nuts and seeds); Finally, be sure your bedroom is nice and dark (or wear an eye mask) – this cues your body to release the natural sleep hormone melatonin.

If the lack of sleep only happens a few times here and there throughout the year, it is really no problem. Trouble is, nearly 2/3’s of Americans are not getting enough sleep during a typical week.  Experts have studied and all agree that getting enough shut-eye is as important to your health and weight as diet and exercise.  So having trouble shedding those pounds???  Try adding in an extra few zzzzzzz’s each night.

Paula Jamieson

Personal Trainer and Fitness Nutritionist

Bodyrich Fitness Company – Duluth, GA


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