Better Sleep for Health & Weight Loss
Updated: May 2, 2022
As part of my New Years resolutions, I've been reviewing a few of my health habits. The one I wanted to talk about this week is sleep. If you want to make positive changes to your health or struggle to lose weight, you may find this article helpful.
Sleep can easily be forgotten as something we have a significant degree of control over. Sleep wasn't something I gave much thought to for much of my life. It was just something that happened, ALMOST, every night.
I've always considered myself a reasonably 'good' sleeper, but I wondered if there was any room for improvement. After reading Mathew Walker's Why We Sleep, I started to give my sleep the attention it deserves. Mathew has had an exciting career spanning many decades in this field of sleep science. He highlights the links between poor sleep and ill health in his book. I was already aware of some of these. Still, I had no idea how important sleep was for many physical and mental conditions.
The book prompted me to review a range of lifestyle factors to improve my sleep and health. I have certainly recognised the potential for poor sleep to impact my general mood and wellbeing. Therefore, I'd like to highlight links between poor sleep and ill health in this article. I will then discuss the benefits of good sleep, factors that may impact the quality of our sleep and finish with some practical tips we can all use to improve our sleep.
Our weight is partly determined by the many subconscious decisions we make for ourselves on a day-to-day basis. If we give our bodies the rest they need, we are more likely to make decisions that promote healthy weight. We can work with our bodies by prioritising getting sufficient sleep instead of fighting against them.
Have you noticed a desire to eat more when you are sleepy? This is because sleep swells concentrations of hunger hormones and suppresses satisfying hormones.
Poor sleep leads to insufficient leptin being produced and increases ghrelin leading to loss of hunger control. Five hours of sleep per night might be considered acceptable by many. However, depriving your body of sleep may mean you still feel hungry, even after sufficient food intake. For example, one study found individuals ate 300kcal more per day when sleeping fewer hours. These extra calories can add up very quickly. This excessive intake could result in around 12lbs of weight gain per year for some individuals.
Sleep loss also increases the release of chemicals called endocannabinoids, also found in cannabis, leading to 'the munches'.
In addition, people who feel tired from insufficient sleep tend to be less included to undertake physical activity during their waking hours.
Food choices also change when individuals are sleep deprived. They may experience cravings for sweet, carb-dense and salty foods. Poor sleep can also impact your ability to absorb essential nutrients.
Unfortunately, people living with obesity are at a much higher risk of sleep apnea, commonly associated with heavy snoring. This condition can cause chronic sleep disruption. Sleep apnea and obesity present a vicious circle, with individuals experiencing increasing rates of poor sleep and therefore increased difficulty losing weight.
A night of good quality sleep can significantly help with weight management. In addition, sufficient sleep can aid impulse management for those who find themselves unable to control their cravings.
Sleep helps fine-tune the balance of insulin and circulating glucose, ensuring a healthy metabolic state. However, high levels of blood glucose will cause damage to a range of tissues within the body.
Usually, insulin will instruct the cells to uptake glucose for energy. If the cells stop responding to insulin, termed 'insulin resistance, blood glucose levels rise.
A higher rate of diabetes has been found in people who report sleeping less than 6 hours per night. Does this mean those who sleep less are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes or do those with diabetes sleep less?
Researchers examined the effects of sleep deprivation on people with normal blood glucose to answer this question. Participants were limited to sleeping four hours per night for six nights. After this period, the participants were 40% less effective in absorbing a standard dose of glucose.
Small tissue samples suggest the body cells become far less receptive to insulin when shortchanged on their required amount of sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation is likely to be one of the significant contributors to the development of T2DM in many developed nations.
A two-way link exists between sleep and your immune system. When you are unwell, your immune system demands extra sleep to help fight off invading pathogens. However, one night of poor quality sleep can degrade your immune system. This change can result in increased chances of becoming unwell in the first place and longer recoveries times when you do become ill.
Sleep even impacts our bodies ability to react effectively to a vaccine. Those who sleep poorly tend to develop less effective resistance to infections following a vaccine than those who get sufficient sleep.
A clear link between working night shifts and an increased chance of developing a range of cancers has been identified. These cancers include breast, prostate, endometrium and colon. I will not deny that this information had some part to play in my decision to leave the ambulance service for a 9-5 career in dietetics.
Of course, some sectors, especially health care, will always require people to work night shifts. However, I do not think the finical remuneration for the potential health consequences is anywhere close to worth it in the UK.
Scientists have also identified an increased risk of cancer in those who regularly sleep less than 6 hours per night. This association may be due to increased rates of inflammation seen in those who get insufficient sleep. As a result, the World Health Organisation has officially classified night-time shift working as a probable carcinogen.
Why We Sleep
Sleep is the bodies way of dealing with and recovering from the day's events. Our sleep is split into two phases, lighter, non-rapid eye movement or NREM sleep, and deeper, rapid eye movement or REM sleep. Both are important for us to feel restored.
Contrary to some people's opinion, the vast majority of the population requires around eight hours of sleep each night.
Research suggests that biphasic sleep may be the natural sleeping pattern of humans. This pattern means one long sleeping period at night with one short nap in the early afternoon.
Next, we'll look at a few factors that may impact our ability to fall asleep or reduce the quality of the sleep we do get.
Deep sleep quality and quantity often become degraded with age. This change may play a part in the deterioration of people's health as they age, as it is during deep sleep, our brain and body can repair from the days' damage. Although we currently can't prevent ageing, some treatments and medications are available to help those with age-related sleep problems.
The human race would rise with the sun and end its day with the setting sun for much of its existence. The advent of fire extended this period to a small degree.
However, the modern invention of artificial light has allowed humans to work deep into the night and set the scene for a reduction in sleep quality for many.
Two factors are at play here. First, this exposure to light later into the evening delays the natural signal the setting sun would send to the brain and body that it would soon be time to sleep.
Evidence suggests that both the amount of light and the colour of the light can have an impact, with light closer to the blue end of the spectrum having a more significant effect.
However, any light exposure does still have an effect. For example, even a very dim bedside lamp has been shown to reduce the release of melatonin. A chemical messenger that tells the brain it is time to sleep.
Being exposed to electric light late into the evening can delay your body's internal clock by 2-3 hours, delaying the time you can fall asleep.
Laptops, tablets, and phones can be particularly problematic due to the light's intensity, colour, and proximity to our eyes. In addition, a reduction in REM sleep has been found in those who use LED devices at night, in this case, those who use tablets compared to a paper book.
Caffeine is the most widely used and traded legal stimulant on the planet. Caffeine works by competing with adenosine receptor sites in the brain, blocking them to prevent the sleepiness signal.
Circulating caffeine levels in the blood peak about 30 minutes after consumption. The problem with caffeine is the half-life of the drug. It has an average half-life of 5-7 hours, meaning 50% of the caffeine will remain after this time. This means there is little difference between having a half cup of coffee at 9 pm if you usually have a full cup at 3 pm.
Other foods such as dark chocolate, tea, energy drinks, ice cream, weight loss pills, and pain relievers can contain caffeine. Don't forget, decaf still contains caffeine at 15-30% of regular. So 3 cups of decaf in the latter half of the day would be the same as 1 normal one.
Some people can clear caffeine from the blood very quickly, whereas, for others, it may take much longer. Ageing increases the rate it takes to metabolise caffeine. So those who used to tolerate large amounts when they were younger may not be able to do so as they get older.
Despite some peoples demeanour, alcohol is a sedative. It is essential to recognise that the differences between sleep and sedation are pretty significant. Sedation provides the body with far less of the therapeutic qualities of natural sleep.
Alcohol tends to fragment sleep making it less restorative. Alcohol also inhibits the brain's ability to experience REM sleep. This inhibition can impair our ability to learn new facts.
These effects of alcohol are made worse as the majority of people typically drink alcohol later in the evening. The issue here is the length of time it takes your liver to process your alcohol. Unfortunately, most people will still be metabolising those 2-3 glasses of wine or beer late into the night.
So to finish, I wanted to share 12 tips for better sleep from the book which can also be found on the sleep foundation website.
Stick to a sleep schedule. Ideally, set the alarm for waking up and bedtime. Also, try and get up at the same time on weekends.
Don't exercise 2-3 hours before bed.
Avoid caffeine & nicotine, both of which are stimulants.
Avoid alcohol before bed for the reasons we have discussed,
Avoid large meals and beverages before bed. This may result in stomach upsets waking you.
Avoid medications that disrupt your sleep. If you are having problems, it may be helpful to ask your GP for a review.
Don't take naps after 3 pm as this can reduce the natural pressure to sleep at an appropriate bedtime.
Relax before bed. Plan in time to relax as part of your bedtime routine. This could mean taking a bath or doing some stretches in the last hour.
Keep your bedroom dark, cool and gadget-free. Ideally, also have dimmed light in the rooms you spend your evenings in. Maintaining darkness in your sleeping room is also very important. Consider installing blackout blinds and curtains to ensure minimal light can get into the room. Also, turn off or remove any electronic devices that pose distractions or have standby lights.
Invest in a comfortable mattress, duvet and pillow. We spend almost 1/3 of our lives in bed. This seems like a good reason to invest in a good quality mattress and bedding.
Try and get natural light exposure early in the morning to help set your body clock.
And finally, don't lie in bed awake for more than 20 minutes if you can't get to sleep. If this is the case, get up and perform a relaxing activity in a different room until you feel sleepy.
Anyway, that's it from me. I hope you found this article helpful or informative. Researching, writing, filming and sharing my content does take quite a bit of time. I do it because I love sharing evidence based information. If you'd like to support my work please consider using these affiliate links to purchase a copy of the book, or sign up for an audible trial so you can listen to it. Thanks in advance!