How sleep affects
weight loss and
your physical health
5 surprising ways sleep may be affecting your health and tips on what to do about them.
Expert tips for staying mentally healthy
If you’ve ever woken up from 8 hours of sleep feeling slightly guilty, you aren’t alone. It seems as if everyone is running on a few hours of shut-eye, dutifully sacrificing slumber for their busy jobs, hectic family life, and favorite activities. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 70 million adults in the United States have trouble sleeping, and have also found that about 1 in 3 people sleep fewer than 7 hours per night. But cutting back on your sleep has serious consequences for your physical and mental health — so much so, that some experts from the CDC and the Institute of Medicine are calling our lack of sleep a public health crisis. “I would love if society could view sleep loss in the same way it views smoking,” says Daniel Barone, MD, a sleep neurologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and the author of the book, Let’s Talk About Sleep: A Guide to Understanding and Improving Your Slumber.
Here are just a few reasons why you shouldn’t skimp on shut-eye.
1. It strengthens your immune system
Not getting enough sleep may increase your risk of catching an upper respiratory infection, according to a 2016 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The researchers found that people who logged less than 5 hours of sleep were more likely to report catching an infection and head or chest cold in the past 30 days compared to those who slept for 7 or 8 hours a night. One reason: Sleep deprivation is associated with the inability of our bodies’ T cells — a key part of our immune system — to fight off infections, according to a 2015 study in the journal Sleep.
And these short-term effects on our immune system can add up. In a 2017 study published in Sleep, researchers recruited 11 identical twins and found that the sibling who slept less over a two-week period — in this case, by about 1 hour each night — also showed signs of a hampered immune system, particularly in regard to their circulating white blood cells. The study, which was the first of its kind to examine twins and sleep deprivation in a natural setting, showed that chronic sleep deprivation resulted in a form of “burned out” immune response , says the study lead Nathaniel F. Watson, MD, sleep specialist and professor of neurology at the University of Washington and director of the UW Harborview Medical Center Sleep Clinic, co-director of the UW Medicine Sleep Center, and past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
2. It helps you lose fat
People who said they slept for less than 7 hours a night were more likely to report being obese and physically inactive, according to the CDC. Part of the blame may lay with our appetite: “People eat more calories when they’re not getting enough sleep,” says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University Department of Medicine and a co-author of a 2016 statement on sleep and heart health from the American Heart Association.
Hormones play a role, too. Men who are running on only a few hours of shut-eye tend to experience an increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin, she says, whereas women experience a reduction in a satiety-boosting hormone called glucagon-like peptide. “The end result is the same thing — overeating,” says St-Onge. On the other hand, getting enough sleep may help you lose fat.
St-Onge points to a small 2010 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which found that when the dieters participating in the study slept for only 5.5 hours a night, they lost less body fat and more lean body mass than when they slept for 8.5 hours a night. However, St-Onge says it has not been shown that getting enough sleep helps you lose weight. “The study referred to controlled feeding, meaning all participants were provided foods in amounts needed to cause weight loss and weight loss (amount of pounds) was the same regardless of sleep duration.”
3. It helps you think
If you’ve ever tried to read a report after pulling an all-nighter, this may come as no surprise. Still, the consequences of too-little sleep on your ability to concentrate, form memories, and more, are probably steeper than you think. When we’re sleep-deprived, we’re more likely to make mistakes while doing tasks and are less likely to remember new information, a 2016 research review concluded, in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.
A lack of sleep also harms our coordination and blunts our reaction times, says Barone. One often-cited study in the journal Sleep Medicine, which examined data over a 21-year period, found that there was an increase in fatal car crashes on the Monday after the spring shift to Daylight Savings Time due to the loss of one hour of sleep. As for the people who are “used” to getting by on a few hours of sleep? Barone says that’s a myth. “We never get used to sleep deprivation,” says Barone. “We may think we do, but we just don’t.”
4. It protects your heart
Too little sleep has been linked to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease, according to the 2016 statement from the American Heart Association. “When we don’t sleep well,” says Barone, “blood pressure may rise, which over years can be harmful.”
Barone points to research that was presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, which followed 15 radiologists through a 24-hour shift. At the end of their day, the doctors — who only managed to sneak in an average of 3 hours of shut-eye — saw an increase in their heart rates, blood pressure levels, and stress hormones. “One night of sleep deprivation might not matter in the long-term,” says Barone, who wasn’t involved in the research, “but if it adds up over a period of 5 or 10 years, it puts people at risk for heart attacks and stroke.”
5. It boost your mood
Let’s face it: Too little sleep can make anyone cranky. Part of the problem is physical: People say they feel more anxious and stressed when they’re sleep-deprived, according to research in the Reference Model in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology published this year. A lack of sleep can cause an increase in our blood pressure, heart rate, and a stress hormone called cortisol. Plus, being sleep-deprived can also make us appear more irritable to other people: When we don’t sleep enough, we show fewer signs of emotion on our face, speak in a lower pitch, and can even appear angry.
To outsmart stress and get ample shut-eye, try to develop a restful and relaxing bedtime ritual such as:
• Shutting your laptop and stowing your phone out of reach, turning off the news, and taking a bath or stretching.
• Get into bed at the same time every night. Not sleepy? Only then should you get out of bed and read a book or magazine until you begin to feel tired.
• To that point: Swiping through your phone isn’t the same as turning pages since the blue light that emanates from your device may suppress melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep/wake cycles, and keep your brain on high alert.
• Avoid excessive caffeine consumption. Typically, it takes four to six hours for your body to metabolize half of the caffeine you’ve consumed. So if you drink a cup of coffee at 3 p.m., you may still feel remnants of the buzz around 9 p.m.
• Opt for non-alcoholic beverages. While alcoholic beverages may initially make you sleepy, having even one drink in the evening may affect your
second and most important stage of sleep, leading to sleep disruptions throughout the night, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse
• Expose yourself to bright sunlight first thing in the morning. Natural sunlight supports your natural internal clock that regulates your sleep/wake cycles.
• Research suggests that exposure to daylight can also improve the duration and quality of sleep.
• Get out of bed at the same time every day. Even if you didn’t sleep too well the night before, maintaining a consistent wake-up time and resisting naps over 30 minutes helps your body develop and stick to a natural sleep schedule.
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5 Things to Do When You Can’t Sleep
What to do when the clock says you should be asleep but your eyes are wide open.
By Kristen Domonell
If you’re having trouble sleeping, you’re not alone. Nearly half of Americans say a lack of sleep affects their daily lives, as per the National Sleep Foundation. “For something that sounds so easy, sleep is quite difficult,” says American Academy of Sleep Medicine spokesperson Raj Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “Sleep is like a puzzle and when you want to try to get good sleep, you need to find out which piece of the puzzle is missing and what piece of the puzzle really affects you the most.”
Good sleep starts during the day, and can be impacted by the foods you eat and what activities you do. Creating a bedroom environment that’s conducive to sleep is also important. But even if you’re doing everything you can do to prep yourself for a full night of sleep, you might still toss and turn. Fortunately, you don’t need to succumb to sleepless nights.
Try this next time you’re lying in bed awake.
1. Get out of bed
It may seem counterproductive, but for some people, lying in bed trying to sleep will only make it harder to drift off, says Dr. Dasgupta. “If you can’t fall asleep in the first 15 to 20 minutes, you should do things that are non-stimulating in dim light,” he says. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure it doesn’t involve a screen. Blue light emitted from certain electronics, like cell phones and tablets, can suppress the secretion of melatonin, which is the hormone that tells your body it’s time to fall asleep.
2. Read a story
Have you ever noticed how time seems to fly by when you’re reading a favorite novel? Reading can also help you fall asleep, says W. Chris Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. Consider keeping a couple of really good books on your nightstand that you can reach for if you’re having trouble falling asleep, or even if you wake up in the middle of the night. Just make sure the story isn’t boring or stress inducing, says Dr. Winter. That means tax law textbooks and the Game of Thrones series are out. “It should be a good story that you’re interested in and kind of captivates you and takes your mind away from not being able to sleep,” he adds.
3. Remind yourself it’s no big dea
Sleep is something that people think about too much, says Dr. Winter. Sure, it’s really important for your health and wellbeing, but ruminating about how you can’t sleep isn’t going to get you anywhere. There isn’t much difference between getting really great rest and a good night’s sleep, anyway, says Winter. And when people are able to remember that and just relax instead of getting into a tizzy over not falling asleep, they’re better off. “All of a sudden that pressure to fall asleep disappears” he says. “And that’s when people sleep really well.”
4. Try visualization
Dr. Winter works with athletes to help them improve their sleep, and he’s found that visualizing practicing their sport helps them fall asleep fast. Whether you want to imagine you’re throwing free throws, practicing your golf game, or dancing, closing your eyes and placing yourself in that situation could help you fall asleep in minutes, says Dr. Winter. Not only will you get some rest, but you might actually get better at your hobby. Interestingly, the brain can’t tell the difference between actually practicing something and just visualizing in detail, he says.
5. Breathe deeply
There’s a reason yoga and meditation can make you feel so relaxed: When you focus on breathing, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Cutting out some of the noise in your mind is an important step toward falling asleep, says Dr. Winter, who’s a big fan of anything that can help you do that. Whether you choose a breathing technique that involves controlling or counting your breath, or you just focus on your natural inhalation and exhalation, you’ll feel more relaxed and able to fall asleep.
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