With the new year underway, for most of us, setting our most ambitious healthy eating intentions and exercise regimes is pretty much a given, right? After the excesses of party season, we’re all over the Kombucha, overnight oats, green juices, intermittent fasting, and reactivating our Class Passes to get in shape for the season. But between diet and exercise, there’s a vital and often overlooked element in this trifecta towards achieving a healthy weight — one that happens overnight.
“Sleep is not a luxury. It’s as essential as food and oxygen. To live well, you must sleep well,” advises sleep expert Nancy Rothstein. Sure, it sounds obvious, but in times when stress is a status and busy is a badge of honor, it’s become oh-so-common for us to push sleep down the chain and treat it as just a byproduct of our day. Little wonder then that in the maelstrom of our modern, mega-pace lives, around a third of adults report that they are getting less than the recommended amount of sleep.
“Sleep deprivation can negatively impact your appetite and related hormones, often causing weight gain, even if you are not overeating,” Rothstein explained. “The CDC and sleep scientists recommend seven to nine hours of sleep for most adults. However, it’s not just about quantity. Good sleep quality is also essential.”
Read on for tips and tricks from Nancy Rothstein that can help improve your sleep:
Cravings and Increased Appetite: The Science
Ever wondered why when you wake up after a bad night of sleep or a big night out, you just instinctively find yourself headed to the doughnut aisle or reaching for a big bag of chips? Way more than just fancying a little treat, there’s actually a scientific reason for this, and it rests in our hormones.
“When we’re sleep deprived, ghrelin increases causing you to want more food — often craving carbohydrates. Meanwhile, leptin levels decrease, which alerts your brain that you don’t have enough energy for your needs, causing your brain to mistakenly tell you you’re hungry,” Rothstein said.
According to Rothstein, sleep loss also causes cortisol levels, the stress hormone associated with inflammation and fat gain, to rise. When teamed up with the ghrelin, they’re like little voices inside your head telling you you’re still hungry even if you’ve just eaten. And the cravings? Serotonin levels drop when you’re tired, hence feeling grouchy, sluggish, even “hangry,” so the body kicks into replenishment mode, causing us to crave fats and carbs as they lead to a release of serotonin and a quick fix of energy.
Think of sleep deprivation as the equivalent of being slightly tipsy, or in more severe cases, mildly drunk. Along with the chemical surges affecting your cravings, your decision-making is also affected thanks to increased activity in the amygdala — the reward region of your brain — pushing you toward that second or even third doughnut, Rothstein said.
Creating a perfect storm for weight gain, aside from enticing you to eat more, not feeling full, and cravings, sleep deprivation can also increase insulin levels, which prompt the body into storing energy as fat, particularly around our waists. The vicious cycle is then completed as this all impacts our general energy levels and mood, dulling our willingness and motivation to get down to the gym and be active.
Surrender To The Slumber
You might be reading this thinking, “I’m getting seven hours of sleep, so I’m fine,” but have you considered the quality of those hours? Practicing good sleep hygiene is essential to making those seven hours actually count — oh, and eight is now the new seven.
“Getting good sleep quality and quantity are equally essential. Someone can be in bed for 10 hours, but if the quality of sleep isn’t good, then that time in bed is not productive,” adds Rothstein.
Fortunately, remedying bad sleep hygiene is a lot easier than you’d think. The first step is of course, like any habit, owning and recognizing what you’re doing. Take a little time to really think about your sleep habits and patterns over a week. There are apps to help you with this like, Sleep Score or Sleep Cycle.
Prioritizing sleep and getting your body into a good biorhythm is vital. Keeping a consistent sleep and wake time will help your circadian (body clock) function its best, which is super important for controlling all aspects of our bodily functions from our appetite, cognition, and mood to our immune systems, metabolism, and even our sex lives.
“One of the most important things to improve sleep is to tune out from technology at least an hour before you go to bed,” Rothstein suggests. “The blue light from the screens negatively impacts your melatonin which regulates your sleep/wake cycle. In addition, the stimulation from these devices or TV perks up your brain just when it needs to transition to sleep and do the work it does during sleep such as encoding memories and cleansing toxins.”
Switch off the Netflix, set your screen time to sleep, and make the most of your pre-bed, technology-free hour with a good book. Make bedtime a little ritual using a lavender pillow spray, and indulge in a good overnight face mask and body treatment. Then just lie back and reap the benefits of a healthier, more rested and trim you. Sweet dreams!