No matter how much activity you do, sleep is your way of recharging to power up for the day ahead. It's true that your metabolism slows by about 10 percent during sleep, but functions like muscle growth and tissue repair occur almost exclusively while you are powered down. In a way, your body takes all the energy you've consumed throughout the day to work on restoring it at night.
Studies show that getting enough sleep can actually counteract gene expression for obesity. So, if you're predisposed to be overweight, sleep may be your new best friend to help boost the effects of the effort you're putting into your diet, exercise, and lifestyle.
Sleep and your hormones
Whether life is too hectic or you've just become accustomed to not getting much sleep, you're not doing your body good when you don't sleep enough. Without enough sleep, your hormones that regulate appetite are thrown off kilter, your production of stress hormones increases and your blood pressure increases, as do a number of inflammatory markers which indicate a greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. On top of these risks, your brain function is diminished and you're not as alert, which can lead to unhealthy choices later on.
Do you lie awake in bed at night thinking about the deadlines you have at work, who's going to watch your kids next weekend when you're away, or what to do about a sick or elderly relative? According to the National Center for Sleep Disorders, about 30–40 percent of adults say they have difficulty falling or staying asleep, and many attribute that to stress or anxiety. It's a complex problem: You lie in bed stressed about life and then you get anxious about not sleeping, which makes it more difficult to fall asleep. On top of that, if you aren't getting enough sleep, the hormones that cause stress increase as well!
Harvard Medical School's Nurses' Health Study followed about 60,000 women over the course of 16 years and found those who got less than 7 hours of sleep per night were 30 percent more likely to gain 30 pounds over the course of the study. When you aren't sleeping enough, you either lie awake or toss and turn at night. And here's what happens:
You don't feel as satisfied with meals due to diminished leptin, the hormone which signals fullness.
You feel hungrier throughout the day due to increased ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger.
You're more stressed due to the increased stress hormone cortisol.
Your blood sugar levels aren't as controlled due to decreased insulin release, which typically ushers blood glucose into cells.
You can gain weight when excess blood glucose gets converted to fat.
You're less likely to exercise due to the fact that your body is not rejuvenated for the day.
You're cranky due to all of the above and the fact that your brain is tired of thinking.
Sleep is a big part of the metabolism-boosting equation. Without addressing your sleeping behavior, you're not looking at the big picture, and that can continue to thwart your best efforts during the day.
Tips for getting your seven hours of sleep
"Get more sleep" is much easier said than done. However, just like making changes to your diet, with practice and time, these changes can become second nature for you as well.
Your body has its own natural clock that dictates when you are awake and when you should be sleeping. It's possible that life events and stress take a big hammer to that clock and the big hand and little hand are bent out of line. Even after years of that clock being nonfunctional, you can retrain your body and get your hormones and the hands all straightened out.
In this technological age, an important chemical to remember when it comes to sleep is melatonin. It's a hormone made the brain that helps regulate your sleeping and waking hours. Melatonin levels typically rise in mid-late evening, remain high overnight, and then drop in the a.m. Light affects how much melatonin is made, so being in bright light or looking at screens before bed can suppress melatonin release and make you more alert. In fact, just two hours of exposure to a bright screen can reduce your melatonin production by 22 percent, throwing a wrench in your good night's sleep plan.
Try to change one or more of your habits around bedtime to reset your clock and get on a regular sleep schedule:
Atmosphere: It's important to create a relaxing bedtime routine. Dim the lights, take a few minutes to stretch, meditate, or listen to calming music before sleep. You want to keep your room dark and at a cool temperature for optimal sleep. Sudden loud noises will interrupt your sleep, so if you can't control those, use a sound machine or fan to try to drown them out.
Power down: Limit watching television, being on computers, playing video games, and looking at your smart phone or tablet right before bed time to help keep your melatonin flowing.
Timing: Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. Also don't get into bed until you're actually tired — research shows that doing otherwise is counterproductive to a good night's sleep.
Nap smart: Although it could help to take a nap in the afternoon if you didn't get a good night's sleep, napping for too long or too late in the day can throw off your cycle. Stick to 30 minutes maximum so you don't head into deep sleep and don't nap within two hours of bedtime.
Your bed: Only use your bed for sleep and sex — not for spending hours watching TV or reading. Make sure your bed and pillows are comfortable and promote relaxation.
What you eat: Stay away from big, fatty meals within two hours before bedtime. Too much fat throughout the day in general has been correlated with less deep sleep at night. Also, minimize foods that promote heartburn, such as chocolate, citrus, tomatoes, anything spicy, and peppermint. These foods are big-time sleep disruptors because they interfere with digestion.
What you drink: Caffeine and alcohol can also promote heartburn and keep you tossing and turning at night. Avoid caffeine after noon if you have trouble sleeping, because half the caffeine can still affect your body up to seven hours after drinking it. Drink alcohol in moderation. It can help you fall asleep but cause you to wake up when you feel withdrawal signs midnight.
Your lifestyle: Regular exercise can help reduce stress and improve sleep quality. If you're a smoker, quitting can help you sleep because nicotine is also a stimulant that keeps you awake.
If you've tried all of these tips and still no dice when it comes to a good night's sleep, you might be curious about sleep aids. There are some over-the-counter options, but keep in mind that they have side effects and could be detrimental to your health if you have an underlying condition or take certain other medications. You should always consult your physician before taking anything that promotes sleep. Your doctor can decide whether a prescription sleep aid would be appropriate for you.