Why Sleep Matters

pillows

Hey, you there! Yes, you! Wiping the sleep out of the inner corners of your eyes, drinking your second mug of coffee, and dreaming about five o’clock…a mere eight hours from now. Are you a morning person? Popular consensus anymore seems to be that mornings are pretty awful. Why? In many cases, it’s because of the poor duration and/or quality of sleep so many of us are getting. So let’s talk a bit about sleep, shall we?

The ideal amount of sleep varies from person to person. I feel my best on about 7.5 hours a night, although I can sneak by on 6 hours here or there and not have too much trouble. Harvard Women’s Health Watch, along with several other reputable websites, recommend between 6-8 hours of sleep per night. I would say that if you aren’t regularly getting that much sleep, you are probably short-changing yourself. But you have a lot to get done, right? And not enough hours in the day! Here’s why it may be harmful to rob your body of pillow time in order to up your productivity:

  1. Your ability to learn is diminished. Sleep aids the brain in committing new information to memory.
  2. You will probably get fat. Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting how our bodies process and store carbohydrates and by altering appetite-affecting hormones. Another interesting tidbit: all of the organs in your body can utilize fat and protein for fuel except for one. The brain operates on carbohydrates. So if you have ever felt like you were craving carbs more after a night where you slept less, you’re not crazy! Your brain was tired, and telling you to glom down carbs to compensate for lack of sleep.
  3. It is dangerous. Safety is one of the more obvious reasons to get enough sleep. Brain fog can result in a reduction in good judgment, and increases the likelihood for accidents that can injure yourself and others.
  4. The people around you don’t appreciate your attitude. If you are not adequately rested, you are much more likely to be snippy with your kids, yell at your husband, and kick the dog. This leaves you irritable and impatient towards the people/animals you love the most!
  5. Your long-term heart health. There are many studies, some published on www.health.harvard.edu, that link serious sleep disorders with hypertension, increased stress, and irregular heartbeat, etc. If this doesn’t worry you, it should. We can over-caffeinate our brains in order to compensate for lack of sleep and force ourselves through the workday. But your heart? It’s still tired.
  6. Your short-term health. Short-changing yourself on sleep impairs your immune system. Sensitive people will note that the first two symptoms to show up when they are getting sick are usually fatigue and slightly elevated heart rate. This is your body asking for more sleep so that it can fight off disease. Many people miss this symptom, then wake up two mornings later with a sore throat.

Okay, so poor sleep is associated strongly with early mortality, being overweight, having metabolic syndrome, and even getting cancer. This means that good sleep is absolutely essential to happiness, longevity, and your overall health. You’ve just read several reasons to log more shut-eye. But what if you can’t?? Let’s talk about some common factors that can sabotage your sleep quantity and quality. (Some of these may really surprise you.)

  1. You miss your body’s natural cues that it is ready for sleep. This is a common one. What it boils down to is that, if you’re fighting off yawns, or grabbing just one more snack before bed, it is probably time to retire. If you consciously make the decision to stay up an extra hour to watch House Hunters or fold the laundry, you’re going to suffer for lack of sleep.
  2. You aren’t eating enough carbs in the evening. Eating next to no carbohydrates at night is advice given to dieters everywhere, commonly from fitness magazines like Shape and Men’s Health. While most people can benefit from reducing their carbohydrate intake in general, doing so exclusively at night can leave you feeling wired.
  3. You don’t have a nighttime routine. Any parent out there knows the importance of pajamas, teeth-brushing, story time and cuddles (Or whatever your household ritual is) to prepare their children for sleep. Adults are no different. Our bodies need cues that it is time for bed. All of our technological gadgets provide blue-light stimulation that can overpower the body’s natural circadian rhythm. Have you ever noticed how you can stay up extra late watching TV or playing on the computer, yet, if you had been trying to read a book, you probably would have fallen asleep? Certain activities promote rest, and others promote insomnia. In general, mediation, reflection, conversation, and so on, are much more in-sync with our natural tendencies.
  4. You aren’t getting enough sunlight during the day. This is a common trouble source for people who are in an office setting all day long. Your body fails to establish a normal rhythm because it never registers and distinguishes day from night. Opening the blinds first thing in the morning, short walks over lunchtime, and sneaking in some outdoor time in the evenings is the best way to fix this. (Note: If you take a vitamin D supplement, or if your D levels show up low in a blood test, this may be you. Supplements are fine, but if you supplement vitamin D, you may want to take it in the morning. Taking it before bed can send your body conflicting signals.)
  5. You exercise at night. Naturally, your body reduces its temperature in the evenings. This is an attempt to initiate sleep. Exercise raises your core body temperature, essentially overriding your body’s sleep message. If you must exercise in the evening, do it pre-supper, and consider reducing the intensity of your workout.

I recognize that there are other factors that can affect sleep. A big one among women my age is having children. My suggestion here, is to let the little things go. When my son was a baby there were nights that I went to bed at 8:30 PM and left the dishes in the sink, because I knew I was going to be up in the night several times. What I found in turn, was that my thinking was more organized during my waking hours for having had more sleep, thus increasing the amount of things I could get done during the day. As a parent, will there still be nights when you are sleep-deprived? Absolutely. Just try not to make it a habit.

In nutrition practice, I can also attest that added stress and toxins on your physical body can impair sleep and cause insomnia. Foods, chemicals, heavy metal toxicity, and immune challenges in the body can disrupt the central nervous system’s ability to regulate sleep, leaving you wired at night and tired during the day. If this sounds like you, you may want to seek out help from a naturopath, nutrition coach, acupuncturist, or other alternative healthcare practitioner to help you address these underlying stressors. I say this because sleeping aids, prescription or over-the-counter, are merely band aid care.  Relying on them long-term can be even more harmful to the body than the effects of not sleeping. But that, my friends, is another topic for another day.

Happy weekend, everyone! And rest up!

Yours in health,

Angie

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