Sleep for Better Health

Let’s talk about sleep, a necessary activity that sometimes eludes us when we need it the most. I, personally, am incredibly strict about my sleep. Because I take sleep medication thanks to insomnia, which is either its own thing or a symptom of various other issues I have, I need a two-hour lead time in order to ensure I get the eight hours of sleep I need. So if I have to be up at, let’s say, 4 AM (#gymlife for you), I go to bed at 6. I slap on my sleep mask and throw the covers over my head to darken my room.

If I don’t get the sleep that I need, I’m in a nightmarish mood. I’m cranky, angry, tired, frustrated, stressed, and downright murderous. I don’t want anything to do with anyone, and poor sleep is the only reason I ever drink coffee in the morning; thus, I try to make it a rare occurrence–but sometimes even sleep medication can’t quiet an active mind.

Unfortunately, poor sleep is a common occurrence in a society that encourages a sleepless attitude in order to get as many things done as you can. According to Business Insider, our own president gets only a few hours of sleep every night (he claims 3-4).

Apparently he can function on this, but your average person cannot. And we shouldn’t continually reinforce lack of sleep by applauding sleepless people as go-getters, like Uber drivers chasing every dollar they can get while sacrificing sleep in the process. Or people who can only catch a few hours sleep in between the 3-4 jobs they may be working. If anything, sleeplessness is a symptom of a society that doesn’t value people’s health as much as it should and only values people for the functions they can perform.

It’s a downright unhealthy attitude to have. Not to mention, believe it or not, lack of sleep can cause weight gain and make weight loss difficult.

Why is this?

According to David G. Myers et. al. (2016), “experimental sleep deprivation increases appetite and eating; our tired brains find fatty foods more enticing” (p. 95). The reason this occurs is because our bodies increase ghrelin, which increases hunger while decreasing leptin, the hormone responsible for suppressing our appetite. We’re then attracted to more calorie-dense foods and are thus more likely to overeat.

Our metabolic rates also decrease, which means we’re burning less calories. As a result of a lack of sleep, cortisol increases, encouraging the body to produce more fat.

Overall, the mere sight of food on a tired brain is enough to make us want to eat it, as we are less inhibited in our appetite thanks to poor sleep. Even worse, our bodies can’t heal from an intense exercise session without sleep, and we’re more likely to get sick and take longer to recover from an illness (p. 95).

So what can you do to improve your sleep?

  1. Set a sleep schedule. If you are able to go to bed at the same time every day, do it. We’re a habits-based species, so if something hasn’t developed as a habit yet, it’s very hard to get into whatever it is we’re trying to make a habit of. To remind yourself to go to bed at ‘x’ time, you can set an alarm that alerts you when it’s time to go to bed. It may seem obvious to go to bed when you’re tired, but sometimes we get too into our nightly activities that we don’t respect just how tired we are.
  2. Sleep masks, dark curtains, ect. If you’re one of those people who works swing shifts, it’s imperative that you find ways to get yourself to sleep. Unfortunately, our brains do not like to produce melatonin, that sleepy hormone, when the sun’s still out. You then need to darken your environment, and you may even have to take a temporary sleep aide until you can get your body used to going to bed while it’s still light outside.
  3. Sleep medication. We would all love to avoid using medication to treat every ailment we fall into, but that’s not always realistic. Sometimes medication is absolutely necessary, especially if you’ve gone three nights in a row without sleeping. I have to take medication nightly. If I don’t, nothing I do can put me to sleep. This is a case where you may have to see a doctor and get a sleep study done, especially if you’re chronically sleepless.
  4. Exercise, take warm baths, meditate, ect. Exercise is great for wearing you out, warm baths are great for relaxing you, meditating is great for unwinding, and so on and so forth. Basically, try to do something before bedtime that will allow you to relax, unwind, and empty cluttered thoughts that tend to speak to one another while you’re trying to fall asleep. And you preferably want to do this an hour before you even retreat to bed.
  5. No electronics. When you finally go to bed, do not turn on the television, don’t start up your laptop, don’t scroll on your cell phone/tablet, and eliminate anything that can be a potential distraction to falling asleep. If you’re like me, you probably count out the number of hours you have to sleep. And if you do this, you might be prone to obsessing over the time, which is why it’s important to power down all electronics to avoid the temptation of constantly checking the time. I use my cell phone as my alarm, but I keep it on the floor. I used to have a digital clock but decided to shut that thing off because I couldn’t stand waking up and finding, to my dismay, that I didn’t have long left to sleep. It’s far easier to relax when you’re ignorant of the time.
  6. Keep the light off. If you frequently wake up in the middle of the night to urinate (like I do), do not turn on your bathroom light. Go in the dark, as it’s then much easier to fall back asleep. You can have a nightlight to guide you to the bathroom, but I’d advise not turning the bathroom light on. Artificial light is enough to convince your brain that it’s any other time but nighttime. It then won’t be that easy to fall back asleep.

Overall, if you’re struggling to lose weight despite doing x, y, and z, you may just want to check your sleep habits.

Reference:

Myers, David G., & Dewall, Nathan C. (2016). Exploring Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers, Macmillan Learning.

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