The Importance of Sleep

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Being a dietitian and all, I feel like I’m supposed to get on my soapbox and tell you how I think eating healthy food is the most important thing you can do for your health. Maybe I’m a bad dietitian, but I don’t actually think that is true.

Don’t get me wrong - I have a great respect for the power of nutrition. I mean, I still am a dietitian! But as I’ve grown in my career, I’ve learned that health is much more complex than my initial definition of it, which was rooted in physical health (and let’s face it, asthetics, because weight has very little to do with physical health, yet I thought thin = healthy). Now I understand that mental health is health too, and probably matters a lot more for quality of life than presence or absence of disease.

Now I see nutrition as one of many factors that contributes to our “whole”-istic health. Getting adequate sleep is another factor, which as you may have guessed from the title, is the topic of today’s blog post.

In todays achievement obsessed society, sleep is often thought of as a luxury, or just an afterthought. I've heard, and OK fine, I’ve even participated in conversations bragging about functioning on next to no sleep. Admittedly, getting enough sleep is something I've struggled with over the past few years since starting my business, and only recently have started to prioritize.

I used the think the biggest consequence of inadequate sleep was feeling cranky and wasting too much money at Starbucks. It wasn’t until I started working at the VA with many veterans who had a difficult time sleeping due to PTSD, when I started to dig into the science around sleep.

Fun fact. Despite the fact that we spend such a huge of our lives sleeping, sleep researchers still aren’t 100% what the main purpose of sleep is. It’s actually kinda a fascinating little mystery - at least to me it is! There does seem to be a few main purposes, including organizing memories, tissue repair and growth, and to synthesize hormones.

Researchers have a much better understanding of the risks of not getting enough sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation causes inflammation, decreases immunity, and increases the risk of chronic disease including hypertension, heart disease (~ 50% higher risk), diabetes (~3X greater risk), and certain types of cancer. It’s kinda crazy how all the messages we get from diet culture make us lose sleep over eating sugar or processed food, when it’s losing sleep that’s a heck of a lot more dangerous than a cookie!

Sleep deprivation can also wreck havoc on your hormones. Just one night of poor sleep can increase cortisol and other stress hormones, lower levels of leptin (an appetite suppressing hormone), increases levels of ghrelin (a hunger stimulating hormone), and make your body more resistant to insulin. Of course, that’s no big deal if we’re talking about a night of poor sleep here and there - just eat a little more to satisfy that extra hunger, and catch up on those zzz’s when you can. But over time that disruption to hunger and fullness hormones plus insulin resistance can lead to a problem.

Sleep deprivation also has a profound impact on cognitive health. I think we’re all quite familiar with the poor mood and fatigue that comes from a restless night. But it also has more severe impact over time, aging the brain and increasing the risk of depression, anxiety, and irritability, and affecting memory and cognitive functioning.

Charlie has no problems getting adequate sleep.

Charlie has no problems getting adequate sleep.

I want to make a special note about the importance of sleep if you’re recovering from an eating disorder or trying to heal your relationship with food. A big part of recovery and becoming an intuitive eater is changing your thought patterns around food and your body. This has to do with neuroplasticity, or your brains ability to change. This is really hard to do when you’re sleep deprived, not only because when you’re tired, it’s hard to remember to challenge those old thought patterns, but sleep deprivation also interferes with neuroplasticity at a biological level. Plus, those disruptions to usual hunger/fullness cues can be really distressing and confusing when you’re in the process of trying to build trust with your body.

So how much sleep is considered adequate? The National Sleep Foundation suggests 7-9 hours for most adults. Here’s some tips for getting that:

Go to bed at about the same time each night.

This one is tough for me, but it does make a big difference by helping to condition your sleep and wake cycles so you fall asleep faster and get a deeper night of sleep.

Start a bedtime ritual.

This helps remind your body that it's time to wind down. Make sure it's a relaxing activity, like 5-10 minutes of restorative yoga in bed, a warm shower, or reading a book...probably not starting to watch The Haunting of Hill House at 10:30 on a weeknight like maybe possibly someone you know. Journaling is another great activity, especially if you’re stressed, as it helps you unload what's on your mind.

Don't go to bed too hungry, or too full.

“Don’t eat after eight, or you’ll gain weight,” is an all too common refrain. It’s not actually true, but you still might not want to eat something substantial right before bed, as it can interfere with sleep. If you feeling uncomfortably full from a rich meal, try a short yoga for digestion video, like this 15 minute one, or have a ginger candy, which can aid digestion. If you’re feeling hungry though, don’t be afraid to eat a snack! Otherwise that hunger will wake you up in the middle of the night. Try something that pairs carbohydrate with some fat and/or protein, like a piece of fruit and nut butter, or crackers with cheese.

Set the room to a cooler temperature at night.

If you can, investing in breathable sheets. Last Christmas we got Parachute percale cotton sheets and a linen and light down duvet, and it made a huge difference for sleep.

The coziest view to wake up to.

The coziest view to wake up to.

Avoid caffeine after 2pm.

Yup, even that early it can impact sleep. I know, I hate it too. Also, be mindful of alcohol, which may help you fall asleep initially, but disrupts sleep later at night, especially after 30, when this fun thing happens where you wake up in sweat with raging anxiety if you drink more than 2 glasses of wine. Aging is so much fun sometimes.

Go outside during the day.

Sunlight during the day helps activate the circadian rhythm. Aim for at least 30 minutes. Even better? Go for a walk or jog outside! Exercise during the day also helps improve sleep.

There’s an app for that.

Check out apps that help you fall asleep. For white noise, I’ve been loving Naturespace. If you have the habit of looking at your phone before bed (guilty), try an app like Twiight which helps filter blue light that interferes with the circaidin rhythm. Insight Timer is an app with many different sleep meditations available for free. One of my clients also recently told me about the podcast Nothing Much Happens, which is basically an adult bedtime story in which, you guessed it, nothing much happens.

Any tricks or tips I missed? What helps you get good quality sleep?

This post was originally published March 2015 and has been updated to give you the best content possible!

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