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Sleep – The Forgotten Nutrient For Good Health

rsz_baby_sleepThe benefits of good sleep for health, happiness, longevity, and overall well-being cannot be overstated. Most people greatly underestimate its value. Eating well and being active is not enough. Sleep is critical for brain health, managing your moods, reducing stress, and boosting your immune system. It reduces your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Its ability to restore, repair, and rejuvenate your body cannot be replicated. We all need sleep!

Healthy Sleep For A Healthy Brain
Sleep has been said to be “of the brain, by the brain and for the brain”. Lack of sleep impairs brain function, including your ability to think, reason, concentrate, solve problems, make decisions, communicate, remember, and be creative. Learning a new skill or task followed by a good night’s sleep significantly enhances your brain’s ability to consolidate and store the information gained. During sleep your brain cleans up toxic debris, including harmful free radicals generated during the day. Over-worked brain cells that don’t get enough sleep become less efficient at clean-up and eventually die. Chronic sleep deprivation hastens aging, and increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s.

Lack of Sleep Expands Your Waistline
How well you sleep impacts what you eat, how much you eat, and how your body responds to food. Not getting enough sleep, having a poor sleep, and going to bed late are all associated with increased food intake (both snacking and meals), unhealthy food choices, and excess body weight in children, teens, and adults. A research review by the University of Queensland, involving 11 long-term studies and over 24,000 participants, linked lack of sleep to double the risk of being overweight or obese.

Lack of sleep negatively impacts brain function, metabolism, and food intake in these four ways:

1. Lack of sleep alters how your brain regulates appetite. The result is decreased levels of leptin in the body (a hormone that suppresses appetite) and increased levels of ghrelin (a hormone that stimulates appetite). In a study by Stanford University, involving 2,000 government employees, those who got an average of 5 hours of sleep per night had 16% less leptin and 15% more ghrelin in their blood as compared to those who slept 8 hours.

2. Lack of sleep changes how your brain reacts to unhealthy foods. Researchers from Columbia University in New York showed pictures of healthy foods (carrots, yogurt, oatmeal, grapes) and unhealthy foods (pizza, donuts, chocolate bars, candy) to individuals after they were well rested and after they were sleep restricted. Brain scans showed that the reward centers in the brain (pleasure seeking centers) were activated to a greater extent by unhealthy foods following restricted sleep. An increased intake of these foods also occurred. In a University of Chicago study extending sleep from 6 ½ hours to 8 hours per night decreased cravings for sweet and salty junk foods by 62%.

3. Lack of sleep hinders the decision-making process. In a study from the University of California at Berkeley, brain scans showed that poor sleep impairs the decision-making part of the brain – the part that assesses how healthy a food is and whether or not to eat it.

4. Lack of sleep curtails the body’s ability to lose body fat. In another study from the University of Chicago, 10 overweight adults were put on a calorie-restricted diet. For two weeks they got 5 ½ hours of sleep and for another 2 weeks they got 8 ½ hours of sleep. Food intake was carefully controlled and participants lost a similar amount of weight in both periods. During the sleep restricted phase of the study, however, participants lost 55% less body fat and 60% more fat-free body mass (primarily lean body mass).

Bottom line: for successful weight loss and weight maintenance a good night’s sleep is crucial.

Prevent Diabetes With Sleep
Poor sleep habits wreak havoc on your ability to manage blood sugar levels well. Your body literally moves into a pre-diabetic state when sleep is deprived. Your sensitivity to insulin goes down (more insulin is required to move sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells), along with your insulin response (not enough insulin is released, so blood sugar levels remain higher than normal). In a review of 11 studies involving over 480,000 participants, getting less or more than 7 to 8 hours of sleep daily was linked to a significantly higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Another study found that people in their late 20s and early 30s who slept less than 6 ½ hours per night had the insulin sensitivity of someone more than 60 years old.

Protect Your Heart & Live Longer With Sleep
Lack of sleep creates an inflammatory environment in the body that is harmful to arteries and cells. It increases your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, irregular heartbeats (cardiac arrhythmias) and heart disease. In the Harvard Health Professionals Follow-Up Study involving over 23,000 men, poor sleep was linked to a 55% higher risk of dying from heart disease. Obstructive sleep apnea – a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep – appears to be especially detrimental to heart health.

Chronic sleep deprivation is also linked to shorter telomeres – a marker of how fast you’re aging and how long you’ll live. Lack of sleep increases levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the body, as well as  harmful free radicals, both of which cause telomeres to shorten. Both too much and too little sleep are linked to shorter telomeres and a higher risk of death.

Boost Your Immunity With Sleep
When you’re tired and sleep deprived your body can’t fight or fend off infections as usual, including the common cold or the flu. Your immune system is suppressed, including a decrease in natural killer cell activity. The less sleep you get, the weaker it is. In research from the University, Pittsburgh involving 153 healthy men and women, those who got less than 7 hours of sleep were almost 3 times more likely to develop a cold when exposed to the common cold virus.

Sleep deprivation can also impact the effectiveness of vaccines. When your immune response is suppressed, not as many antibodies are built up to fight off the disease the vaccine is for.

Sleep Buffers Mental Health
The World Health Organization lists mental health disorders, including depression, as one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Poor sleep promotes poor mental health. Good sleep protects mental health. In a study from Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, teens deprived of sleep rated themselves as significantly more tense, anxious, angry, hostile, confused, irritable, and fatigued. In research from the University of Amsterdam, extending the sleep times of teens, significantly reduced rates of depression.

Sleep deprived individuals show approximately 60% greater activity in the emotionally reactive, limbic part of the brain (amygdala) and less activity in the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions (the prefrontal cortex). As a result, when we don’t get enough sleep we find it more difficult to understand our emotions, accept our emotions, and deal with our emotions, especially the hard ones like anger or sadness. In addition, our willpower wanes, we lose self-control, and we become more impulsive. This leads to a significant increase in emotional eating, especially for women, and causes us to eat more tempting, unhealthy foods as well.

Poor mental health also leads to poor sleep. Personality traits such as moodiness, excessive worrying or anxiety, fearfulness, jealously, and perfectionism all have a negative impact on sleep, as do emotions like shame, guilt and regret. Learning to manage these emotions well, therefore, really matters.

Lastly, based on research from Kent State University, children who have stressed out parents are significantly more likely to have sleep problems. When parents do a better job of reducing and managing their own stress and anxiety, their children sleep better too.

Getting the Sleep You Need

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers insufficient sleep a public-health epidemic, part of today’s modern society. Some experts believe sleep is so critical to health that policies should be put in place to make it a non-negotiable priority.

How many hours of sleep do you need?
(as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation)

Newborns (0-3 months ): 14-17 hours
Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours

Ten Tips For A Better Sleep

1. Make sleep a priority. What needs to change or happen in your life to optimize your sleep schedule?
2. Make your room a sleep sanctuary. Keep it cool, quiet and dark. Get an eye mask or black-out curtains if needed. Consider ear plugs, fans or a “white noise” machine if your partner snores. Your mattress, pillows, and bedding should be comfortable, supportive, and inviting. When morning comes, let the bright light in – it signals your body to wake up.
3. Avoid caffeine-containing products in the late afternoon and evening, including coffee, tea, dark chocolate, soft drinks, and energy drinks.
4. Don’t exercise or drink alcohol within a few hours of bedtime. If a bedtime snack is consumed, make it light and healthy. Reduce your fluid intake before bedtime as well.
5. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even on weekends (teens may benefit from extra sleep on the weekends, if they’re not getting enough during the week). A consistent sleep schedule helps you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and allows your body to get in sync with its natural rhythm (your body clock).
6. Try to avoid the TV, computer, and cell phone in the hour before bedtime (this applies to children and teens too). The blue light emitted from these devices suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone.
7. Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Good options include taking a bath, reading a book, or meditating (even a few inhales and exhales can calm your nervous system significantly).
8. Keep a pad of paper beside your bed. Jot down any thoughts you’re having trouble letting go of.
9. Avoid naps, especially in the afternoon if you’re having trouble sleeping. Short, power naps can be helpful for some.
10. Exercise daily. More vigorous activity is best, but even light activity helps.

Finally, if insomnia is an ongoing problem for you, cognitive behavioural therapy has been proven to be highly effective for sleep disturbances. It helps you address the detrimental thoughts and behaviours that prevent you from sleeping. Relaxation training, such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery can also help. Medications for sleep come with side effects and are generally not good for long term use.

Lessons Learned:
Sleep is an all-star protector of health, happiness and well-being. It supports brain health, boosts immunity, and decreases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. It’s critical for good mental health too. Give sleep the priority it deserves in your life.


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