Wellness Wednesday: The Importance of Sleep

In today's fast-paced society, sleep is often thought of as a luxury, but when it comes to weight control, physical and mental health, the importance of sleep can't be overstated. Learn why, plus five simple strategies to improve sleep. 

The Importance of Sleep
The Importance of Sleep

First, I'll point out the irony of this post, which I'm writing from bed, sick after a whirlwind week that was significantly lacking in zzz's. I stayed up late on the weekdays to get work done before my best friend's wedding, and of course over the weekend, I stayed up late again celebrating. So yeah, perfect timing on this one.

In todays fast-paced society, sleep is often thought of as a luxury. I've heard, and yes, even been a part of conversations where people brag about how few hours of sleep they're running on. Energy drinks are a booming business, with the two most popular brands selling almost 7 billion dollars a year, despite the fact that they've been linked to deaths. Chronic fatigue affects up to 20% of our population.

Admittedly, getting enough sleep is something I've struggled with over the past couple years, especially since I started this blog. Only recently have I started to prioritize sleep and fully understand it's importance for health.

I used the think the biggest consequence of inadequate sleep was poor mood and money wasted on Starbucks. It wasn't until I was working at the VA, after noticing many of my sleep-deprived clients were taking in less calories than I was, yet gaining weight, that I started to consider the role sleep plays in health and weight control.

Now I consider adequate sleep as essential as exercise for weight loss, physical and mental health. I call sleep, along with stress and sweeteners one of the "Three S's of the Stuck Scale." That's my silly and overly-alliterated way of me saying it could be why the scale isn't moving, despite making changes to your eating habits.

With the traditional mindset of calories in versus calories out for weight loss, it may be surprising to learn the effect sleep has on weight. But more and more studies are linking lack of sleep to weight gain, and chronic disease. One study found just thirty minutes of lost sleep is linked to a 17% increase in risk of obesity. Another showed depriving healthy people of 3 hours less sleep for just one week resulted in a 2 pound weight gain.

Some of that weight gain is from eating more - staying up later means more time munching on mint chocolate chip in front of the TV. But there's more to it than that. Low mood and fatigue lead to snacking more during the day (especially on high sugar foods) in an attempt to boost energy and mood. Studies also show a fatigued brain responds more powerfully to junk food temptations, and has less willpower to resist.

Even if you're not eating extra calories, lack of sleep can still lead to weight gain through hormonal changes. Fatigue increases cortisol, a hormone that promotes weight gain, especially around the midsection, and grehlin, a hormone that increases hunger and triggers fat storage. It also decreases leptin, a hormone that inhibits hunger and also affects metabolism.

Tips for Getting More Sleep
Tips for Getting More Sleep

Knowing you need more sleep is one thing, but actually getting more sleep is another. First things first, make it a priority. Trust me, I know that's hard to do when you've got a to-do list that seems to gain two tasks for every one that you check off. But I promise, with a well rested and clear mind, you'll be much more productive. Here's a few other tips for improving sleep:

1. Go to bed at about the same time each night. This helps condition your sleep and wake cycles so you fall asleep faster and get a deeper night of sleep.

2. Start a bedtime ritual, which tells your body that it's time to wind down. Make sure it's a relaxing activity, like 5-10 minutes of restorative yoga, a warm shower or reading a book. Journaling is another great activity, especially if you struggle with stress. Unload what's on your mind into your journal so you're not taking it with you to bed. Avoid TV or other electronic devices.

3. Don't go to bed too hungry, or too full - both interfere with sleep. If you feel like you're hungry before you go to bed, have something light, like a piece of fresh fruit or a small handful of nuts. Overate? Try a short yoga video that aids in digestion, like this 15 minute one, or drink a cup of my homemade digestion tea.

4. Avoid caffeine after 2pm. Yup, even that early it can impact sleep. I used to swear that it didn't, but after using my sleep tracker, it's pretty clear that I don't get much deep sleep if I drink coffee in the afternoon. Also avoid alcohol, which helps you fall asleep initially, but disrupts sleep later at night.

5. 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.

What tricks do you use that help you fall asleep?