In Kindergarten, nap time was mandatory when we had all the energy in the world! Now that I'm all grown up, I would love a little siesta in our busy American culture, because most days, I am only fueled by about 5 hours of sleep. I'm not the only one; sleep is elusive for 52% of women and 45% of men, especially as we age. If you are one of those unlucky individuals, you know how an occasional sleepless night can affect your mental sharpness and energy the following day. What if you have many sleepless nights, or if you average less than seven hours of sleep per night on a regular basis? What are the effects? You may be surprised to find out that weight gain is the most common side effect.
Studies show that women who slept 6 hours per night were 12% more likely to experience major weight gain, and 6% more likely to become obese, compared to women who slept 7 or more hours a night. The worst part is that those who slept less, actually ate less and exercised more than their well-rested friends, but gained more weight. Ouch. Tired and chubby. Not the combo we wanted, right?
The reasons are multi-faceted. The body produces more cortisol, which is the stress hormone, when you don’t get enough sleep. Additional cortisol levels increase appetite and causes the body to store fat, usually in the belly. Further, lack of sleep interferes with the body's ability to metabolize carbohydrates and causes high blood levels of glucose, which leads to higher insulin levels and body-fat storage. This metabolic syndrome, also called insulin resistance syndrome, is a cluster of symptoms that increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Signs of the syndrome are belly fat, low HDL ("good") cholesterol, and high triglyceride levels, elevated blood pressure, and blood sugar. These findings were true regardless of the age or gender of the sleep-deprived person.
The best way to get a full night’s rest is to go to bed tired. Seems like a no-brainer. However, with today’s “busy” lifestyle, we are everything but physically active. Exercising daily can actually help you to sleep better because your body will be fatigued from the effort. Simply walking the steps rather than taking the elevator will have a tremendous impact on tiring your body out so that you rest well. Getting the CDC's recommended hour of physical exercise per day, CAN be done every day... just break it down into smaller bits of time on days that you can't get to your favorite Pilates, Yoga or Spin® class.
Remember how a parent gets their child ready for bed: a bath, a book, quiet time and to bed at the same time every night. "Slept like a baby!" You can again too. A few suggestions for getting your much needed seven to eight hours: set an alarm as a reminder to begin your “wind-down” time about an hour before you need to go to bed, read a book or listen to music you enjoy, and then lights out 8 hours before you have to wake up. Dimming the lights in your home and shutting off the TV, computer, IPad and Smart Phone an hour or so before bed will allow your melatonin to release. Melatonin regulates your sleep and awake cycle, and more is released when it is dark, helping you to sleep. A mild-sleep aid may be occasionally used, but not for extended periods. If you feel that you need a sleep aid more than a few nights per week, see your doctor. You may have an undiagnosed medical condition.
I used to think that getting enough sleep was only important for mental clarity. I now know that overall physical health is critically connected to a good night’s rest.