So far we have covered nutrition and exercise as tools for a healthy weight and lifestyle. Now, third but definitely still just as important as the former two, is sleep! We often disregard or forget about this oh so important factor altogether, in the go-go-go lifestyle that comes along with our society. Sleep is one of the most crucial ingredients for health and well-being. Sleep is what regulates your hormones, repairs your body, promotes a healthy mental state, and so much more.
If weight loss is your goal and you’re eating healthy foods and working out but not seeing much progress, it is time to evaluate your sleep. Not only will your “gains” from working out be lost if you are deprived of sleep, but your body will crave more food to help fuel your body as it goes into “overtime,” and usually the foods we crave are not the foods we need for proper nutrition. Let’s dig a little deeper, here, and see what else is effected by sleep and HOW to get the most out of your sleep!
In addition to getting enough sleep (a recommended 6-8 hours for adults), the timing of your sleep is also crucial. Research shows that your body starts to release melatonin in the evening as it starts to get dark out, then begins to release cortisol as the sun begins to rise. Melatonin is the sleep hormone responsible for putting your body at rest and cortisol is the sleep hormone responsible for waking your body up. An optimal sleep schedule is to sleep from 10pm to 6am (8 hours), as 10pm-2am is the time in which your body reaches its peak hormone balance to promote optimal restoration for your cells. When you stay up too late, or sleep in too late, your body is thrown off by hormone dysregulation. This can explain why you may still feel tired even after getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep, because getting 8 hours of sleep from 12am-8am, is not the same as a 10pm-6am schedule. When you go to sleep at 12am you have already missed the first two hours of REM sleep. Dr. Oz has a great article going deeper into the science behind the 10pm-2am cycle of restorative sleep here if you’re interested in learning more.
What happens to your body when you get a good night’s sleep? A ton of great things, such as:
- Blood sugar regulation, important for preventing type 2 diabetes
- Your muscles rebuild themselves, utilizing essential amino acids that you have digested throughout the day (making your workout actually worth it!)
- Your body repairs itself from internal and external stressors (inflammation reduces, mood regulates, free-radicals that cause disease are removed, all thanks to the antioxidant properties of melatonin)
- Long-term memory is reinforced, helping you perform cognitive tasks more efficiently
All of the above (expect for the last point, which should still be an important factor for people) aid in weight loss. When you don’t get a quality amount of sleep, the above either will not happen or will occur at a much less efficient rate.
So, get those ZZZ’s because they’re a lot more important than you think!
Setting a routine for better sleep
Now, let’s address HOW to get this restorative, restful sleep, because as we all know, insomnia can be a withdrawal for many smokers who begin their quit journey.
- Only use your bed for sleep and sex. When you do other activities in your bed (such as reading, watching tv or eating) your brain does not associate your bed with sleep as strongly, and your bed should only be associated with relaxation.
- When you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed. This might sound like bad advice, but it goes along with the first tip. If it is taking you up to an hour to try to fall asleep, get out of bed and read on the couch or stretch until you feel sleepy, then hop back in bed. When you can’t sleep and stay in bed, feeling anxious or upset that you can’t fall asleep, you are unintentionally associating your bed with negative emotions.
- Exercise early in the day, if possible. It is proven that moderate exercise (try for 30 minutes a day, even if it’s just walking) will help adults get a better night’s sleep. Even further, if you exercise before 3pm you will be getting the most from this benefit as it is also proven that exercising after 3pm can cause your sleep hormone production (melatonin and cortisol) to get post-poned, potentially making it harder to initially fall asleep.
- Consistency is key. Try to go to sleep at the same time each night, and wake up around the same time each morning. Building a consistent routine around your sleep schedule helps keep your hormones in check and makes it easier to fall asleep (and stay asleep) at night.
- Unplug! This one is so important in our busy, always accessible society. At least an hour before going to bed, stay away from your cell phone, computer, tv, or any other electronic device. Read a book, stretch or find another relaxing activity that you can participate in each night as part of your routine to help your body unwind and relax. This will help you rid yourself of your racing thoughts, as well as give your brain a rest by intentionally reducing the blue-light that you are exposed to. Blue-light interferes with our internal clock, which controls our sleep hormone (melatonin), causing hormone imbalance, anxiety and stress.
- Ditch the late night snacks (or meals). Eating later in the evening and at night is tough on our digestive system. Historically speaking, when the sun goes down, so does our body. And with it, our bodily systems, such as digestion. Remember earlier when I said that our body repairs itself when we sleep? Well, when you eat a meal less than three hours before going to sleep, your digestive system is still doing a lot of work while your body is trying to rest! This might be why you wake up multiple times in the night to pee, can’t seem to get a deep sleep, or even have trouble falling asleep. Do yourself and your digestive system a favor and try to abstain from eating at least three hours before sleeping, four if you’re able to eat dinner earlier.
- Dim your lights. Our sleep hormone, melatonin, is produced by our pineal gland which gets triggered to release or not release melatonin based on the light we receive. Similar to the idea of unplugging from technology, you should try to reduce the overall amount of light received as soon as the sun starts to set. In this way, you are mimicking the way nature intended and helping produce melatonin naturally in order to induce a restful sleep by 10pm.
- Reduce or eliminate your caffeine intake altogether. Caffeine is a stimulant and it has been proven that even having caffeine in the morning can effect your sleep at night. Try cutting down from 2 cups of coffee to 1, or switch to decaf if you really enjoy the taste. Be aware that a lot of teas have a ton of caffeine in them, so opt for the de-caffinated ones or something light like a white tea.
Coming from someone who has personally had a bad relationship with sleep from my adolescence through my early 20’s, if you try all of these tips, you will be successful in helping to reset your sleep pattern. I never thought that I would have a “normal” sleep schedule, but the fact is most American’s are not getting a restful sleep due to the rise in technology and just lack of knowledge about how our sleep hormones are regulated and what environmental cues can throw them way off. Give it a try for a week, and be amazed that you will not need a sleep aid or other substances to help you sleep anymore! If you suffer from racing thoughts at night, as a lot of us do, and stretching or meditating is not working for you, you can try getting a magnesium supplement to help relax your mind (it also relieves muscle cramps!) or look into ashwaganda root to take mid-afternoon and in the evening for stress relief and relaxation. Always ask your doctor before adding any supplements to your daily regimen as some can interfere with medications.