With all the to-do lists and festivities facing us during the holiday season, it can be difficult getting enough sleep. And not only can being sleep deprived make us crankier and less focused, it could also cause us to gain weight during a time of so many gustatory temptations.
Significant scientific evidence shows that a critical element to weight control is getting a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown that when people don’t get enough sleep, they consume about 300 calories a day more than when they are well-rested, and most of the extra calories came from high-fat foods to cover the energy drain of staying awake longer. In addition, these people exercise less and snack more, especially at night, which can lead to significant weight gain.
It’s a vicious circle, and there are physiological reasons behind it.
Brain can't say no
Skimping on sleep sets your brain up to make bad decisions by dulling activity in the frontal lobe, the center of decision-making and impulse control. In other words, the mental clarity to make good decisions is compromised, sort of like being drunk.
Plus, when you’re overtired, your brain’s reward centers rev up, seeking out something that feels good. So, while you might be able to squelch comfort food cravings when you’re well-rested, your sleep-deprived brain may have trouble saying no to that second slice of fruit cake or third helping of turkey stuffing.
In addition to eating more, your metabolism is slower when you are sleep-deprived. This is because your body’s ability to process insulin — a hormone needed to change sugar, starches, and other food into energy — goes askew. When your body doesn’t respond properly to insulin, your body has trouble processing fats from your bloodstream, so it ends up storing them as fat.
Plus, insulin promotes the release of “leptin.” If your fat cells are less sensitive to insulin, you will make less leptin. And why is producing less of this hormone a problem? Leptin is the “stop-eating" hormone, that voice in the ear whispering, “No cannoli.”
And, to make matters worse, lack of sleep makes your body produce more of the hormone “ghrelin.” This is the “go” hormone that tells you when to eat, the voice whispering, “Yes, cannoli.”
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Simply, more ghrelin plus less leptin equals weight gain. So, it’s not so much that if you sleep, you’ll lose weight, but that too little sleep hampers your metabolism and contributes to weight gain.
How can we get a better night’s sleep?
Sleep needs vary. However, in general, most young adults need seven to nine hours a night. Some people can do with less, and others need more. As people grow older, their need for sleep decreases to about seven to eight hours a night.
So, how can we get the proper amount of sleep so our hormones work in harmony to help keep our appetites to a healthy level? It’s pretty basic, as follows:
• Turn off the TV, computer and cellphone at least one hour before turning in.
• Avoid heavy meals and alcohol near bedtime; these may cause heartburn and make it difficult to fall asleep. Stay away from soda, tea, coffee, and chocolate after 2 p.m. as caffeine stays in your system for five to six hours.
• Create a bedtime ritual. It’s not the time to tackle big issues. Instead, take a warm bath, meditate, or read.
• Stick to a schedule by waking up and going to bed at the same time every day, even on weekends.
• Turn off the lights. Darkness cues your body to release the natural sleep hormone melatonin, while light suppresses it.
Save the bedroom for sleep and sex. Think relaxation and release, rather than work or entertainment.
Also, it is important to note that sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, can interfere with sleep quality. With such disorders, the body can still be relatively sleep-deprived, even though a person might get the requisite hours in bed. If you suspect you have such a condition, see your provider.
It’s the holidays. There’s no reason to deny yourself the tastes of the season. But getting enough sleep can help you avoid looking down at an expanded waistline come January.
Mark Reploeg, M.D., is a sleep medicine and neurophysiology specialist at The Corvallis Clinic and the medical director of the Samaritan Sleep Medicine Program. He can be reached at 541-754-1268.