If you are one of those people who fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to getting enough sleep every night, you could be heading toward a world of hurt sooner rather than later.
Did you know that you are considered sleep-deprived if you have six or fewer hours of sleep? That in itself can give rise to a whole host of problems. Even if you eat healthy and exercise regularly, getting adequate sleep is the third element of the healthy living triad that most people don’t think to factor into their health plan.
The ABCs of no Zzzz’s
How does sleep deprivation affect the other two areas of the triad? Well for one, the less sleep you get each night, the more apt you are to act on your animal “immediate gratification” instincts. That means that you are more prone to make less than healthy decisions for yourself, including about food, when tired.
Lack of sleep puts stress on our bodies. And in stress mode, we usually crave more carbs (carbohydrates) than usual, called “comfort food.” More carbs means more sugars in our bodies. This means weight gain, as sugars turn to fat. And after the results of one 1999 study (mentioned here), that means those sugars could have detrimental effects on your health. The study showed that people who get only four hours of sleep a night can develop blood sugar level characteristics akin to diabetes.
And while our decision-making skills are hampered by sleep, so are our energy levels. If your brain is having a hard time keeping up, imagine how little energy you will have left to implement or keep up an exercise regime. A foggy rational brain will have you reaching for the potato chips or sodas instead of the mixed nuts or carrots, and a tired mind will sit you down in front of the TV for an hour or more. Not a great combination!
Not only can chronic sleep deprivation lead to weight gain and possible obesity, but that can then open you up to other physical ailments including high blood pressure, heart attack/heart failure, stroke, and the aforementioned diabetes.
And you thought that the old adage of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” was a good personal motto. It’s more like a quote for a gravestone engraving, if you’re not careful.
Lack of sleep can also lead to not-so-dire, but still uncomfortable conditions such as insomnia, nasty mood swings, restless leg syndrome, depression, sleep apnea, and even a rare sleep-walking disorder called Nocturnal Sleep-Related Eating Disorder, where someone can sleep walk to the fridge, eat, and go to bed without ever waking up or remembering it. Disruption of sleep and depression is also known to be a co-factor in increasing one’s symptoms of pain for any already existing physical ailment – or create new conditions from chronic fatigue to fibromyalgia.
In general, lack of sufficient sleep suppresses your immune system and increases the stress on your body and mind. This can pave the way for many illnesses and chronic (but not permanent!) conditions. And when your body is malfunctioning and inefficient at energy use (remember the four-hour sleepers and their high blood sugar?), that’s a lot of sugar floating around your system. That causes a whole lot of inflammation that results in some other unpleasant physical problems, and can even lead to cancer.
Breaking the viscous cycle
So now you know that you need to get more sleep at night than you are. But that’s harder than it sounds, right? Here are some tips to get back some Zzz’s:
- Drink caffeine before 2 p.m./reduce overall caffeine consumption
- Eliminate sugary & energy drinks
- Exercise in the morning (because nighttime exercise can keep you awake!)
- Avoid alcohol (prevents deep sleep)
- Keep evening snacks small, and include a carbohydrate and a protein (cheese/crackers, peanut butter/toast). This helps because both make the amino acid tryptophan more available to the brain, and makes you drowsy
- Drink your last cup of tea or water an hour before bed to avoid waking up in the middle of the night
- Manage/reduce everyday stress
- Do yoga, tai chi or meditation to help relax you before bed if you have trouble keeping the mind chatter down
- Turn off or block off all lights before bed (even night lights and digital clocks), because excess light at night can mess with your circadian rhythms
How to make a sleep plan…
… And stick to it!
It’s easy to make verbal commitments to make meaningful changes in your life. But they’re not always so simple to put into action. That’s why it’s best to start with small steps rather than trying to run the entire marathon. It’s as easy as 1-2-3!
Pick a goal. Any goal. Something related to sleep. Look at the suggestions above for breaking the cycle for inspiration. Maybe you want to commit to getting to bed by a certain time at night, for example. Make sure it’s something you WANT to accomplish. That’s already have the battle.
Got one? Great!
Run your goal through SMART (as I discussed in an earlier post). Is it Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Measurable, Results-Oriented, Time-Limited? If you measured from 0-10, is your confidence in being able to achieve this goal at a 7 or higher? If it’s not, then go back to the drawing board and shave off a little bit from your goal to make it an even smaller step. Telling yourself you are going to go to bed by 10 p.m. every night of the week, when you’re used to staying up to 2 or 3 a.m.? How about trying to get to bed by midnight two or three days a week (pick certain days so that you feel prepared to follow through)? Make sure your goal is bite-sized.
Find an accountability partner. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or significant other, tell someone what your plan is and have them check in with you to make sure you’re still on the right path.
Slow and steady is the best way to win the race. Once you get comfortable with your small step, add a little more. And a little more. Before you know it, you won’t need your partner to check in on you, and you will have reached your finish line. Your initial action has now become habit.
And this can be applied to any goal. Go ahead and try it, and let me know how it went! Need help whittling down a goal for yourself? Contact me, and I can help you get you started on your way to a life of good habits.
Bonne Sante (be well)!