I’ve been having a hard time sleeping lately; a byproduct of quarantine and work-from-home, it’s more difficult to fall asleep at night when I’ve spent all day in that same bedroom. Not only am I expending less energy during the day by staying indoors, I’m also practicing poor sleep hygiene habits – I’m sleeping, working, eating, and relaxing, all in the same space.
And when I’m sleep deprived, I’m generally not in my best mood. I’m cranky, tired, and constantly seek the comfort of snacks to make me feel a little better.
The thing is, this sleep-deprivation soothing with comfort-food isn’t just some unadvisable coping strategy I’ve adopted; it’s actually science.
That’s right – a large body of research has shown that sleep, exercise, diet, and weight are all intricately interconnected. For example, a study of 495 participants published in the Journal of the American Heart Association reported that lower sleep quality and insomnia were associated with outcomes such as higher intake of food by weight and energy, higher sugar consumption, and lower consumption of whole grains. This finding demonstrates that not only does a lack of sleep lead us to consume more calories, it also leads us to make less healthy food choices. In another study, participants who were sleep-deprived had greater activation of their hunger and reward systems, and were less successful in resisting snacks the following day. Further research suggests that this relationship between sleep and diet might even be reciprocal; that sleep restriction can impact the composition of our gut microbiome, and that our gut microbiomes in turn may impact the quality of our sleep.
Similarly, bidirectional relationships between sleep and exercise tell us that exercise = better sleep, while less sleep = less motivation for exercise, and greater likelihood of impaired performance leading to accident/injury. There is even some evidence that inadequate sleep can impair muscle strength.
In light of all this research on diet and exercise, it should come as no surprise that sleep and obesity are closely related. Poor quality of sleep is associated with higher BMI (body mass index), moderated by the aforementioned factors (e.g. dietary inhibition). It’s a slippery slope that becomes a vicious cycle: bad sleep -> bad diet/less exercise -> weight gain -> more bad sleep. Additionally, greater levels of stress can reduce our quality of sleep, and not getting enough sleep can then make us more stressed – potentially leading to coping behaviors like emotional eating. So if you’ve been struggling to lose weight, you might want to take a look in your bedroom – your sleep schedule may be the culprit. The good news is that this cycle can be broken!
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
The National Sleep Foundation defines sleep hygiene as “a variety of different practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness.” Amongst these recommended practices are limiting daytime naps, limiting stimulants (e.g. caffeine, nicotine) close to bedtime, and making sure that your bedroom is a quiet, relaxing place. This might involve temperature regulation (experts recommend a relatively cool temp), light-blocking curtains, sound machines, and ensuring that you have clean and comfortable bedding. It’s also important that the place you sleep remains just that; not a place to take work phone calls or catch up on the news. Although breakfast in bed sounds nice, it can be harder to sleep when there is a lack of separation between activities taking place there.
Get Your Circadian Rhythm Down to a Science
The importance of routine cannot be overstated; train your body to recognize designated sleep hours by adhering to the same bedtime every night and setting your alarm clock for the same time every morning. Furthermore, reinforce the power of your circadian rhythm by maximizing your exposure to bright light during daytime hours, and minimizing light (including that from TV/cell phones) in the evening. You can further embellish a pre-sleep routine by incorporating relaxing bedtime activities like meditation. Trust me, biology wants you to sleep; you just need to align environmental factors to coincide with what your body is already built to do!
Wear Yourself Out
There’s nothing better than snuggling into your cozy comforter at night and actually being tired. Exercise during the day has been shown to have greatly beneficial outcomes for sleep duration and quality, as long as your workout is completed more than one hour prior to going to bed. Not to mention that exercise will increase your daily calorie burn, getting you one step closer to weight loss success!
Sleep can be a dangerous beast, threatening your ability to live a healthy lifestyle. But the first step to change is self-awareness, and hopefully I’ve been able to shed some light (during daytime hours, of course) on the importance that sleep plays in your health – thus motivating you to make adjustments in order to maximize your Z’s!
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