It’s the New Year, and that means that a lot of us are making resolutions about living healthier and losing weight. When people embark on a weight loss or fitness program, they generally set goals about eliminating unhealthy foods or beginning an exercise program, and those are all sensible positive steps. But few spend time thinking about getting enough sleep, and according to research that is one of the most important steps you can take.
We all know that getting enough sleep can make a really big difference in how we feel and perform during the course of the day. A bad night of sleep can make us feel sluggish and slow our ability to make connections. It diminishes memory and robs us of the energy that we normally feel. But what you may not know is what the impact of poor sleep is on the way that you eat. Chances are, you never even think about it, but there’s a really good chance that when you’ve slept badly, you’ve followed that experience with poor food choices — foods that we all identify as ‘comfort’ eating that loads up on fat, carbs and sugars. As it turns out, there’s a scientific reason why that’s happening.
Sleep and diet researchers alike are finding that the shorter the amount of quality sleep that we get each night, the more likely we are to crave foods that are high in fat. We also eat more than we do when we’ve had the recommended seven or eight hours of sleep per night, and as a result we’re a lot more likely to gain weight. We’re taking in more energy in food than we’re expending – and to make matters worse, the fact that we’re not sleeping robs us of the energy we need to exercise in order to work off the extra calories.
When we want to lose weight, it’s important that we figure out the right balance. One of the most difficult aspects of weight loss is adding an exercise that burns calories, but that demands that we provide ourselves with additional energy in order to accomplish it. How do you fuel your exercise without adding too many calories? But when you complicate this question even further by adding in sleep deprivation, things get really tricky. We deprive ourselves of sleep and then want to eat more, and the lack of sleep also makes us less likely to have the energy level needed for exercise. This means that the relationship between weight and sleep is extremely interconnected, and studies done in the laboratory have proven this to be true. Studies have shown that people who slept either too long (over nine hours per night) or too little (less than six hours per night) gain an average of four more pounds over a six-year period of time than do those who sleep between seven and eight hours per night.
But sleep’s relationship with food goes beyond the number of hours that we’re getting – it’s also about the sleep quality, just as the quality of the food that we eat has so much to do with our overall health. People who suffer from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, and who therefore experience disrupted sleep, find that their metabolism is greatly impacted. It slows down, and this has an impact on their ability to lose weight. This is one of the reasons that obstructive sleep apnea is so closely related with obesity, and why seeking treatment for this serious sleep disorder is so important. Other sleep problems are equally to blame. Whether you suffer from simple insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or some other sleep problem, it is essential that you seek treatment, not only for your overall health but also to help you accomplish your weight loss goals.
For those who are not suffering from a sleep disorder, it is still important that you understand the role that adequate sleep plays in your weight loss goal. Numerous studies have shown that not getting enough sleep alters the body’s production of important hormones. The hormones that are effected include the one that allows your body to recognize when it is hungry and when it is full. Another is the one that controls your ability to make healthy decisions about what you eat, and which can drive you to seek out high fat foods instead of those that will help you to accomplish your goals. If you are serious about improving your overall health, losing weight and getting more fit in the new year, it is essential that you take a good look at your sleep hygiene and sleep habits and be honest with yourself about whether they are working against you. Here are some of the questions that you need to ask yourself:
• Am I waking up and going to sleep at a consistent time each day, and do those times add up to an adequate amount of sleep? The easiest way to figure out whether you’re giving yourself enough time is to determine what time you need to wake up in order to get to where you need to go during the day, then count backwards eight hours from that time. It is remarkable how few people actually go through this exercise. You may be surprised to learn that your normal bedtime is setting you up for fatigue and weight loss failure.
• Have I done everything I can to make my sleep environment comfortable and conducive to a good night’s sleep? This means not only making sure your bed and bedding is comfortable, but also minimizing noise and lighting that may interfere with your sleep quality.
• Am I eating differently when I stay up late or don’t get a good night’s sleep? The answer to this is critical, and getting the information you need may require keeping a sleep journal in addition to a food journal. You may be surprised to find the link between sleepiness and a bad diet day.