Add weight control to the long list of health benefits associated with a good night’s sleep.
Sleep disorders are linked to a wide range of serious health conditions including hypertension, depression, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, impaired immune health and, according to a new study, obesity. During Sleep Awareness Month in March, specialists in sleep medicine are urging people to make sleep a higher priority in their lives.
“For a long time, we have seen signals in the research that sleep deprivation is associated with obesity, but the reason why has been unclear,” said Ryan Hays, MD, Director of Sleep Medicine at Parkland Health & Hospital System and Assistant Professor of Neurology & Neurotherapeutics at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “Now there’s new research out of the University of Alabama demonstrating that patients who slept less than seven hours a night were more likely to spend an additional nine minutes per day eating while distracted and about 30 additional minutes per day drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.”
The study defined “distracted eating” as eating that occurs while engaged in some other task – usually while watching TV, listening to the radio, working on the computer or a similar, and typically sedentary, activity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 65 percent of Americans are now classified as overweight or obese. The relationship between sleep deprivation and serious health issues like heart attack and diabetes has already been established.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that sleep-related problems affect between 50 and 70 million men, women and children in America. That’s one-third of us who would have to answer “not so good” when asked how we slept last night.
“Over time, chronic sleep deprivation can erode the mental processes that allow us to be mindful of the nutritional quality of our food choices,” Dr. Hays explained, “which in turn can lead to overeating or eating the wrong kinds of foods.”
“Being chronically sleep deprived is similar to living in a chronic stressful situation, creating a ‘fight or flight’ state where we may crave high-carbohydrate, high-fat food,” Dr. Hays said. “Hormone imbalances caused by lack of adequate sleep may direct us to overeat. This new study indicates that in a sleep-deprived state, we’re more likely to multitask – engaging in other activities while we’re eating and drinking poorly chosen foods. So lack of sleep can indirectly set us up for failure in terms of maintaining a healthy weight.”
“One can conclude that greater emphasis on sleep quality and quantity may be an important component to decreasing the risk of obesity and other serious health problems like diabetes and heart disease,” Dr. Hays said.
If you recognize this behavior pattern in yourself or a family member, getting more sleep should be a priority.
Dr. Hays offered the following seven tips for good sleep hygiene:
- Establish a clear pattern of winding down in the evening
- Exercise throughout the day to try to expend extra calories and help the body rest and relax at night
- Try activities like a hot bath, mindful meditation or yoga to help you unwind in the evening as you get closer to bedtime
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet
- Limit napping
- Avoid taking sleeping pills to help you fall asleep as their effects often do not last
- Maintain similar routines night-to-night; go to bed at the same time every night (even on weekends)
“Your brain, particularly your innate circadian rhythms and the hormones related to sleep regulation really cannot distinguish between Thursday and Saturday,” Dr. Hays said. “Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time tricking ourselves into getting up early on weekdays to go to work, but then sleeping in on the weekends. That is not the best strategy.”