Grueling boot camps, borderline-religious adherence to food plans: we dutifully watch the energy going into and coming out of our bodies with zeal and determination. Calories in versus calories out, we are told. Basic math. Q.E.D. Problem solved.
Body weight, however, is not a simple, elementary calculation, and it’s high time we talk about another piece of the puzzle.
Chronic sleep deprivation is a bigger problem than you think.
Roughly 20 years ago (in 1998, to be exact), 35% of Americans were getting eight hours of sleep. In 2005, that number was down to 26%. Basically, one-third of Americans (and perhaps, at this point, even more) is chronically sleep deprived.
As much as I wish I could just go-go-go (think of how productive I could be and still have time for hours of Netflix!)…I can’t, and neither can you. Sleep is when we recharge: cells repair themselves; hormones circulate; and the brain gets a refreshing reboot. Without any sleep, we would literally die, and as it turns out, not getting enough of it throws us totally off balance, too.
Inadequate sleep increases how much energy we consume.
Partly, this is thanks to the lovely phenomenon of squashed impulse control that comes with the neurological consequences of even a mild to moderate sleep deficit (think, just a few hours). Suddenly, those kind of stale, generic doughnuts in the office break room that we normally don’t bat an eye at look like the holy grail of nourishment; or maybe it’s a glimpse of our kid’s candy stash that triggers us, or the smell of the fast food joint we walk by in the food court, or…
Whatever our Achilles’ heel may be, research has shown that if we’re running on even a smidge less sleep than is ideal, we’re likely to consume an extra 550 calories the next day. Five hundred and fifty! That’s an entire meal beyond what we would’ve otherwise eaten.
Impulsivity, however, is not the only reason we may find ourselves knocking back some extra bags of chips the day after a restless night. Our hormones are also affected, three in particular that could have a big impact on body weight. First ghrelin, an appetite stimulating hormone, increases so we find ourselves wanting to eat more and more. Next there is a decrease in the satiety hormone, leptin, which makes it more difficult for us to register when we have had enough to eat. Finally, insulin is dramatically impacted, leading to the kind of impaired glucose tolerance typically only seen in diabetics.
Oh, and cortisol also shoots up, which leads to a state of stress in the body, and do you really need to be reminded of all of the health consequences of living under chronic stress?
As if neurological and hormonal impairments weren’t enough, there are still more factors that drive up our energy consumption when we get a poor night’s sleep. Fatigue can be confused for hunger as our body desperately seeks the energy it didn’t store up from the night before. Plus, if you’re sleeping less, you’re awake longer, which provides more opportunities to eat. And though I’m sure someone out there reaches for an exact portion of dry roasted almonds or some organic, raw kale leaves during their midnight channel surfing session, chances are those late-night calories are coming from less than nutritious sources.
To add insult to injury, we also burn fewer calories when sleep deprived.
Did you think it could get worse? It does. Think about it: after a rough night of sleep, how likely are you to hit the gym the next day? If you do drag yourself there, how productive are you? Sometimes adrenaline can surge us through on that first day, but make a habit of it and our other self-care practices, including workouts, will suffer, too. Research shows that individuals who are sleep deprived are less likely to be physically active than those who get adequate sleep.
We can’t cheat sleep, so let’s do something about it instead.
The exact amount of sleep needed varies from one individual to the next, but generally seven to nine hours for adults is the goal. Having trouble? Try out these tips from the National Sleep Foundation:
· Avoid daytime naps, especially after three o’clock.
· Avoid stimulants, including caffeine, nicotine, and yes, alcohol.
· Avoid large meals too close to bed.
· Avoid bright light (especially digital) at night.
· DO exercise more.
· DO get lots of early morning light.
· DO establish a sleep schedule and relaxing bedtime routine.
· DO create a sleep oasis that is cool, comfortable, dark, and reserved only for sleeping.
Getting into a routine with your sleep takes time, but it could very well be the one thing standing between you and your wellness goals. What have you got to lose?