Adequate sleep is part of many healthy eating plans for a good reason. With less than seven hours of sleep, the body changes the way it releases appetite-controlling hormones. Though it might be tempting to stay up late to watch an extra episode of your favorite TV drama, you’ll be affecting more than just your energy level the next day. Committing to a healthy lifestyle requires making adequate sleep a priority, and the best way to do that is through developing healthy sleep hygiene - the habits, and behaviors that affect your sleep quantity and quality.
Sleep deprivation starts as soon as you get less than seven hours of sleep. Even one hour less affects the way the body functions. Neurons in the brain start to slow down which decreases reaction times, decision-making skills, and reasoning abilities. The immune system works less efficiently, making you more susceptible to illness. The stress hormone cortisol doesn’t leave the body as quickly as is typical, so you feel more stressed, especially at night.
Sleep loss also changes the timing and release of appetite-controlling hormones. The stomach secretes a hormone called ghrelin that tells the brain you’re hungry. During sleep deprivation, ghrelin gets released in larger amounts. As the stomach fills, the body releases the satiety hormone leptin to start appetite suppression. However, during sleep deprivation, leptin gets released in smaller amounts. With the changes in ghrelin and leptin levels, not only do you feel hungrier but once full, your body doesn’t recognize that it’s time to stop eating. The combination of increased hunger with decreased satiety leads to overeating and unwanted weight gain.
Hormone release isn’t the only way that sleep loss changes appetite. Without adequate rest, cookies, candy, and other high-fat, sugary foods become more appealing because of changes in the rewards center of the brain. Sleep loss affects this area of the brain in much the same way marijuana does. Consequently, the results are much the same — a serious case of the munchies.
Other parts of the brain show changes that affect behavior that influence your food-related behavior and spending choices. The amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, shows increased activity and sensitivity to negative emotions when you’re tired. At the same time, the prefrontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for rational thinking, is less active. You’re much more likely to take part in emotional eating when you’re tired because your brain is more impulsive.
The effects of these changes in the brain go beyond eating. The kinds and amounts of foods purchased during sleep deprivation can also change. A study that focused on men’s food purchasing found that sleep deprivation caused participants to buy larger amounts of high-calorie foods. While the results weren’t conclusive, the researchers hypothesized that raised ghrelin levels contributed to the increase in high-calorie food purchases. Both the body and the brain may have craved the rewards of the unhealthy foods.
It comes down to this—lack of sleep makes it hard to make healthy decisions surrounding food whether that be what you’re eating or buying. The physical and emotional changes make it difficult to follow a well-balanced meal plan. Chronic sleep deprivation also increases the risk of obesity, which opens the door to a whole host of other potential illnesses and conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
To give your mind and body the ability to function at their best, you need a full seven to eight hours of rest, where you delve into the deepest levels of sleep. Developing good sleep hygiene is vital to appetite and metabolism regulation. With a few simple changes in your lifestyle, you can get to sleep faster and stay asleep longer for the restorative sleep you need.
Sleep hygiene begins with a bedroom devoted solely to sleep. That means a supportive mattress that’s ideal for your preferred sleep position. Back sleepers may need something a bit more firm than side sleepers. You should also select bedding that allows your skin to breath. Natural fibers like cotton and linen can be a good choice. At night, the bedroom should be kept cool with the temperature somewhere between 60-68 degrees to accommodate the drop in body temperature necessary for the onset of sleep.
The body controls the sleep-wake cycle through regular 24-hour cycles called circadian rhythms. Light, both natural and artificial, influence these rhythms. To help promote the release of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, as much light as possible should be blocked from the bedroom at night. Light pollution from street lamps, signs, or the moon can interfere with your circadian rhythms. Blackout curtains, heavy drapes, or blinds should be used to keep light from seeping in windows. If you need a nightlight for nighttime bathroom trips, look for motion-activated models and put them low to the ground for as little disruption as possible.
Developing habits and behaviors that promote healthy sleep can also help you get better rest, especially for those who have a hard time falling asleep. Better sleep habits start during the day long before you’re ready for bed. During the day you should:
- Exercise Regularly: Exercise improves your health. You’re also more likely to be tired at night if you’ve exercised during the day. Just be careful not to do strenuous exercise within four hours of bedtime. The rise in body temperature and release of endorphins can keep you awake.
- Increase Exposure to Natural Light: Exposure to natural light helps establish healthy circadian rhythms. A walk outside, trip to the park with family or time spent on the front porch can all increase your exposure to light so that when night begins to fall, your body recognizes that it’s time to start releasing sleep hormones.
- Eat Healthy, Regularly Spaced Meals: Meal timing also contributes to regular circadian rhythms. Eating your meals at roughly the same time every day allows the body to release hormones in an established pattern. Avoid eating high-fat, heavy foods close to bedtime. Both the discomfort and digestive process can interfere with your sleep cycle.
Healthy nighttime behaviors give you the best chance of reaching the deepest levels of sleep where your mind and body can be restored to full health. Good nighttime habits include:
- A Consistent Bedtime: The body loves routine. A consistent schedule trains the brain to release sleep hormones at the same time each day. Try to keep the same bedtime on weekends to prevent sleep debt problems once Monday rolls around.
- Bedtime Routine: Bedtime routines work well no matter your age. A routine gives your mind and body the chance to relieve tension and stress while helping signal the brain to release sleep hormones.
- Reduce Stress: Stress is a major cause of insomnia. Studies have shown that daily meditation and yoga reduce stress and insomnia. Both yoga and meditation can be included in a bedtime routine, and both can be performed while in bed for a relaxing transition to sleep.
- Avoiding Stimulants: Stimulants like caffeine temporarily block sleep hormones. Avoid them for four hours before bedtime to prevent sleep disruptions.
- Shut Off Screens: Bright blue light from some electronic devices like televisions, laptops, and smartphones can suppress the release of sleep hormones. Turn off electronics two to three hours before bed to help your body stay on track.
If you want to work with not only a board-certified sleep doctor, but also the only independent sleep lab accredited with the AASM, then call Alaska Sleep Clinic or click the link below to download the self referral form.