Sleep and health

Monday, December 7, 2020

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Child sleeping

We’ve made it to December and we’re probably all feeling a little tired right now. But are we tired due to the challenging year we’ve had? Or are we tired because many of us just aren’t getting enough sleep?

A fascinating book by Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep, takes an in-depth look at sleep. Here’s just a few of the things I’ve learnt.

When you are chronically sleep-deprived, you don’t realise you are sleep-deprived. So all those people who proudly announce how easily they survive on less than 6 hours sleep, are probably exhausted, but too tired to notice.

Sleep is essential for every single cell in our body, for all our organs (brain, heart, lungs, liver etc.) and our systems (digestive, nervous, immune etc.). Chronic sleep-deprivation increases our risk for:

  • Aggressive, bullying and behavioural problems in children
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions in teenagers
  • Developing cancer, diabetes and dementia
  • Heart attack or stroke
  • Weight gain and obesity

How does sleep have such an impact? Put simply, if our cells aren’t operating properly, then our organs and systems don’t operate properly, and things start to go wrong.

Take weight. Insufficient sleep messes with the hormones that signal hunger (ghrelin) and when we are full (leptin). Lack of sleep results in more ghrelin and less leptin – so we eat more than we need and the “I’m full” signal isn’t strong enough to slow us down. Making matters worse, when we are tired, we crave sweet, carbohydrate-rich foods like biscuits, cakes, white bread… all the stuff that breaks down to simple sugars, which, if not used up for energy, gets stored as fat. Not to mention the impact it has on our blood sugar levels (see my previous blog post for the problems that come with fluctuating blood sugar).

It doesn’t stop there. When we’re sleep-deprived, our bodies hold onto fat stores. In his book, Walker discusses a study comparing weight loss in two groups of people following the same calorie-controlled diet; one group had plenty of sleep, the other had insufficient sleep. While both groups lost weight, the insufficient sleep group lost lean muscle mass, but kept their fat stores.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. You can reset your hunger hormones by getting enough sleep. How much is enough? Ideally, 7 – 8 hours per night. Work and school/study commitments usually dictate your wake-up time, so change your bedtime if needed to help you get enough sleep – start by moving it forward in 15-minute increments, if going to bed an hour earlier seems too daunting.

Improve your sleep quality by:

  • Making sure your room is dark
  • Avoiding screens (computer, Ipad, phone) for 1-2 hours before bed, as the blue light disrupts production of melatonin, a hormone which makes you sleepy
  • Having a wind-down routine, such as:
    • A casual stroll after dinner
    • A warm bath with lavender drops
    • A cup of herbal tea
  • Before going to sleep, try reading, listening to a meditation or even just spend a few minutes focussed on breathing slowly and deeply.
  • Keep caffeine consumption to before 2pm, to reduce its impact on your sleep
  • Don’t rely on alcohol to help you sleep – it reduces your ability to fall into a deep and restful sleep.

One more point. Our circadian rhythms (sleep and wake times) change throughout our lives, and teenagers generally work better going to bed later, and getting up later, than their parents. Don’t be too hard on your teenage kids who aren’t showing any signs of tiredness at 11pm or signs of life at 7am. It’s just their natural sleep patterns trying to take over. They will emerge eventually – both into the day and into a more socially acceptable sleep pattern as they grow into adulthood.

If you follow all the recommendations for sleep but still struggle with energy, a consultation with me can help pinpoint nutritional deficiencies or lifestyle stressors that may be impacting you. Book an appointment here or call for an obligation-free chat about how I can help.

Develop a positive relationship with food