It’s not just poor diet and lack of exercise that are making Americans fatter and sicker these days — there’s a third leg to the stool: sleep deprivation. Across the country, there are approximately 70 million people struggling to get a good night’s sleep. Some have trouble falling asleep, some can’t stay asleep, and for others it’s a combination of both. The causes can range from a lumpy mattress to a serious health condition like sleep apnea.
Lack of sleep is a huge stressor on the body and is associated with numerous physical and emotional problems, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, a weakened immune system, and depression. It can also affect your weight. People tend to weigh more when they sleep less.
Studies show that when you don’t get enough sleep it hinders your body’s ability to metabolize food properly. Lack of sleep interferes with the production of two important hormones, leptin and ghrelin, which help regulate your metabolism and hunger levels. Leptin is produced in your fat cells; it suppresses hunger and lets your brain know when your stomach is full. Ghrelin is produced in your stomach cells; its job is to stimulate your appetite, slow your metabolism, and decrease your body’s ability to burn fat (levels of ghrelin normally increase before meals and decrease afterward).
With less sleep, your body produces lower levels of appetite-suppressing leptin and higher levels of appetite-boosting ghrelin. This means you’ll not only be tired from lack of sleep, you’ll also be hungry and you won’t feel satisfied even after you eat, which can set the stage for long-term overeating and weight gain. Additionally, if you’re sleep-deprived and feeling exhausted, you’re less likely to have the willpower necessary to stave off cravings for sugary and starchy carbohydrates and other unhealthy foods.
So, how can you break the cycle of sleeplessness? Ideally, you should be getting a minimum of 8 hours of sleep every night. People with certain health conditions may need even more. Unfortunately, the average American adult is getting only 6.7 hours of sleep a night, and many get even less than that. If you’re concerned about how your sleeping habits are affecting your weight and your health, it’s time to discuss your sleep issues with your doctor and possibly consult a sleep specialist.
Dr. Arthur Agatston feels that many people simply are not aware of the critical role a good night’s sleep plays in their lives and health and, therefore, they just don’t make time for it. Since most sleeping problems are caused by poor bedtime habits, you can start safeguarding your sleep by following these tips adapted from Dr. Agatston’s book, The South Beach Wake-Up Call:
- Remove distracting electronic equipment like computers or smartphones from your bedroom.
- Refrain from caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods before bed, and don’t eat a big meal right before going to sleep. If you’re hungry, choose a healthy snack that contains some good carbohydrates and lean protein.
- Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet at night. Consider investing in heavy curtains or a white-noise machine if you think it would help.
- Create a comfortable bed by adding a foam, down, or hypoallergenic mattress topper, and try to replace your mattress every 7 to 10 years.
- Stick to a schedule of going to sleep and waking up at about the same time every day.
- Start keeping a sleep log and discuss the results with your doctor or a sleep specialist if the results call for it.