And The Greatest of These is…
Sleep!!! Ok, I don’t know exactly how true this is, but I say it this way because we, as a society, tend to downplay the importance of good, old-fashioned sleep. There is a reason that we were created to need sleep, as inconvenient as it may seem at times. I’m all about productivity, and I’ve often lamented that, if I didn’t have to sleep, I could get SO much done! But the reality is that our productivity, among other things, takes a hit when we are lacking quality pillow time.
Sleep has been a huge topic of conversation in our household. I have struggled with thyroid-related fatigue off and on for the past 7 years; my husband works 3rd shift and finds himself perpetually exhausted. As you may already know, when I struggle with something, I research it. Today, I am a passionate protector of sleep for myself and my family.
Researchers agree that 7-9 hours of sleep per night is optimal for adults, but most people are falling short of this mark. A secondary issue is that people might achieve this quantity, but not necessarily the best quality of sleep.
Let’s take a look at what happens when we aren’t getting optimal sleep:
Weight gain and difficulty losing weight: Even one night of poor sleep can have a significant impact on our appetites and food intake. Two important appetite control hormones are leptin and grehlin. Leptin makes us feel full and grehlin makes us feel hungry. Poor sleep causes our leptin levels to drop and our grehlin levels to rise, regardless of the fact that we have had enough to eat and should feel full. Additionally, poor sleep is a stress on the body and causes cortisol levels to rise. In this situation, these three hormones create hunger, cravings for carbohydrates and sugar, and weight gain. Have you ever been up all night and found that the next day you were reaching for all things sugar and carbohydrate…and you couldn’t seem to stop? Yep. This is why.
Poor sleep affects other weight control mechanisms as well. The body loses its ability to regulate blood sugar, which can ultimately lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which impacts metabolism, isn’t properly signaled by the brain. Finally, growth hormone levels drop, which negates all of our hard word in the gym. We need growth hormone to build and repair muscle and burn fat which, interestingly, occurs while we are sleeping.
We will get sick: While this might be a no-brainer, it is helpful to understand why this is the case. There are many mechanisms in place to bolster our immune system while we sleep, but here is one interesting example. Around 9 to 10pm, the hormone melatonin begins to rise, peaks at midnight, and then gradually declines until it reaches its lowest level around 9am. Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone, but it is also responsible for reducing inflammation and performing an antioxidant role. While we sleep, it is busy clearing away free radicals (damaged DNA) that build up every day due to all kinds of stress in our lives: emotional, physical, and environmental. Reducing inflammation is key in protecting our bodies from all kinds of disease, from the common cold to cancer. If we are going to bed at midnight (peak melatonin levels) or after, we are not giving our bodies the best opportunity to repair and restore the immune system.
Many experts recommend going to bed by 10-11pm every night to work with our melatonin and sleep cycles. Sleeping from 10pm-6am gives us the best chance to feel restful upon waking because we are in rhythm with our melatonin and able to get the optimal 5 sleep cycles that our bodies need. Have you ever felt groggy after sleeping 8 hours, but you went to bed at midnight or later? I have.
Daily functioning and productivity suffers: Research has repeatedly shown that poor sleep significantly impacts: memory, mental clarity, athletic performance, cognitive functioning, energy levels, mood, the ability to manage stress, and mental health.
Should we exercise when we are sleep-deprived? Many of you have probably experienced the feeling of finally getting on track with a regular exercise routine and then life hits. Our child has us up all night, or we are ramping up for a work deadline and logging multiple late nights. Travel can also throw off our sleep patterns. Life happens, so what do we do about exercise? It’s always good for us, right?
Exercise creates stress within the body. When we are rested and nourished, our bodies handle it very well. However, we can create more stress if we push ourselves too hard while at a sleep deficit. Remember how sleep deprivation can cause weight gain and stress?
There are times when I would actually recommend that a person log some extra sleep as opposed to exercising. Other times, it might be beneficial to do more restorative exercises. If you find yourself in a time where sleep is less than optimal, consider doing shorter sessions (even 10-20 minutes) of walking, stretching, yoga, and/or balance work. It might be just enough to rejuvenate you without creating added stress. Pushing yourself to exercise when you are sleep-deprived can also invite injuries because your ability to concentrate (on proper form, how you are moving, etc.) is impaired.
It’s important to think of our sleep as a bank account. If we aren’t making regular deposits, the balance is dropping. Eventually we will notice the effects, in our productivity, exercise performance, and our overall health.
Here are some tips to improve your sleep:
Whenever possible, start to wind down 2 hours before bed, dim the lights and limit TV watching. This is not the time to exercise, tackle a mentally taxing project, do your budget, or even check your email. I know, I know. This is hard.
Remember that exposure to light before bed and during the night can disrupt the production of melatonin. Avoid being on the computer and other devices before bed, and make sure your bedroom is cool and dark.
When you are getting enough sleep, you will wake before your alarm. If this isn’t happening, gradually move up your bedtime by 15 minute increments until you are waking before your alarm. If an alarm is waking you from deep sleep, you are more likely to feel groggy and unrested.
Stay away from sugary carbs at night. This can spike blood sugar, making it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
Magnesium-rich foods make a good nighttime snack: pumpkin seeds, almonds, an ounce of dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher), yogurt (make sure there isn’t added sugar), figs, bananas.
Limit caffeine after noon. It has a half-life of 12 hours, so it is still in your system at bedtime, depending on how fast or slow you happen to metabolize caffeine. Some people, like myself, are slow metabolizers and hang on to the effects of caffeine longer than others.
Drink tea with chamomile. My favorite is Sleepytime Vanilla tea by Celestial Seasonings.
If your mind is racing before bed, do a “brain dump.” Write down everything that has your head spinning and resolve to work through what is within your control the next day.
Prayer, meditation, or very light yoga can help to clear our minds.
If you find that you are waking a lot in the night, consider seeing a doctor to rule out any medical conditions such as sleep apnea, which is very serious.
Quality sleep is more important than exercise. If we aren’t sleeping (and eating) well, we won’t have the resources to make exercise effective and beneficial. Guarding your sleep takes deliberate practice and patience. Stick with it and your body will thank you!