If you’ve been staying up at night worrying about creeping weight gain, recurring illnesses, or age-related maladies, I have good news, and bad news.
The bad news: More than one-third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, according to a new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And getting less than seven hours per night makes us more likely to develop chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress.
The good news: Lifestyle changes that are simple, free, and can be implemented as early as the next time you put your head on your pillow can help you get the healthy sleep you need.
William Shakespeare Said it Best
“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.”
~William Shakespeare, Macbeth
So how does getting enough sleep influence your weight, rate of aging, immune system, and susceptibility to chronic disease? Can it really be that powerful an antidote? Well, let’s start with the topic that’s on most of our minds—how to keep the pounds from piling on.
Weight Gain. When you don’t sleep at least six hours a night, you can end up with metabolic dysfunctions such as altered appetite hormones grhelin and leptin. Such dysfunctions can lead to increased caloric consumption, and lack of blood sugar control, all of which can contribute to weight gain and even Type 2 Diabetes. Furthermore, even short-term sleep deprivation can lead you to consuming larger portions, with a preference for high-calorie, high-carb foods. One study from the University of Pennsylvania found that study participants who were sleep deprived for just five nights in a row gained about two pounds, perhaps because of late night snacking. Lack of sleep tends to diminish self-discipline, which is a major factor in overeating.
Premature Aging. Just one night of partial sleep deprivation activates gene expression patterns that may promote processes involved in biological aging. "Our data support the hypothesis that one night of not getting enough sleep in older adults activates important biological pathways that promote biological aging," says Judith Carroll, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology in Los Angeles, Calif. Other research suggests that lack of sleep can even shrink your brain. And research published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging suggests that people with chronic sleep problems may even develop Alzheimer’s disease sooner than those who sleep well.
Greater Susceptibility to Chronic Disease. In addition to increasing the likelihood of weight gain and obesity, premature aging, and reduced immunity, inadequate sleep contributes to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and high blood pressure. In fact, sleeping less than six hours per night more than TRIPLES your risk for high blood pressure, and women who get less than four hours of sleep per night double their chances of dying from heart disease. According to research from Great Britain, insufficient sleep is also the strongest predictor for pain in adults over 50.
Triples the Risk of Catching a Cold. Proper rest is one of the building blocks of a healthy immune system, so if you are sleep deprived, you are much more likely to catch a cold. In fact, one Carnegie Mellon University study found that sleeping fewer than seven hours a night was associated with a tripled risk of coming down with a cold. Sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as physical stress or illness, which may help explain why lack of sleep is tied to an increased risk of numerous chronic diseases.
Getting Your zzzzzz’s is Just The Sum of Small Efforts
Small adjustments to your daily routine and sleep environment can help ensure adequate sleep and better health. You can start by implementing a few important changes:
- Avoid watching TV, or using your computer, iPhone, or other electronic devices in the evening, at least an hour or so before going to bed. These devices emit EMFs, which affect your pineal gland and its melatonin production. EMFs may have other negative biological effects, as well.
- Sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible. The slightest bit of light in your bedroom can disrupt your body’s clock and melatonin production. So cover your clock radio, move electrical devices at least three feet away from your bed, and cover your windows with drapes or blackout shades.
- Be mindful of what you eat and drink. It’s best to stop drinking any fluids within two hours of going to bed, as this will reduce the likelihood of needing to wake up to go to the bathroom. You may also choose to avoid fluids containing caffeine or alcohol, as the former may keep you from falling asleep, and the latter may keep you from entering the most healing, deepest sleeps. If you are going to have an evening snack, make it a high-protein snack a few hours before bed, as this can help produce melatonin and serotonin, which can help you sleep. Conversely, avoid before-bed snacks, particularly those with grains and sugars, as they will raise your blood sugar and delay sleep.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Studies show that the best room temperature for sleep is between 60 to 68 degrees.
- Take a hot bath 1.5 to 2 hours before bedtime. This increases your core body temperature, and when you get out of the bath it abruptly drops, signaling your body that you are ready to sleep.
- Get adequate exercise. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a good workout can make you more alert, speed up your metabolism and energize you for the day ahead, but exercise right before bedtime can lead to a poor night’s sleep. Exercising earlier in the day is beneficial because body temperature is related to sleep. Because cooler body temperatures are associated with sleep onset, it’s important to allow the body time to cool off before sleep. (Please note: Whether to stop exercising a few hours before bedtime is controversial; you will have to decide what is most beneficial for your own needs.)
- Get some bright sun exposure in the morning, if possible. Ten to fifteen minutes of morning sunlight will send a strong message to your internal clock that day has arrived. Maintaining a natural rhythm of exposure to daylight during the day, and darkness at night, is an essential component of sleeping well. Not only are most people exposed to too much light after dark, they’re also getting insufficient amounts of natural daylight during the day. Daytime exposure to bright sunlight is important because it synchronizes your master clock, which in turn influences other biological clocks throughout your body.