The Sleep Diet

I’m not a fan of the term “diet.” The word is typically associated with various trends that flood the weight loss industry. However, when you are eating right and working out but your weight hasn’t budged (or maybe your weight loss has plateaued), it is important to consider the importance and impact of sleep.

If you fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed and wake up without an alarm, you are probably getting the right amount of sleep.  If you fall asleep immediately upon hitting the pillow and always need an alarm to wake up, you are probably sleep deprived. Whenever I come across the above scenario with a client or friend, I ask “how much sleep are you getting?” Most often, the response is a begrudging “ugh, well I can never fall asleep…” or “not as much as I should.” You know you are lacking sleep, but do you know what it’s costing you? 

The Price of Losing Sleep and Counting Sheep

The more sheep you see, the more at risk you are for diabetes and heart problems.  You are also at risk for drowsy driving.  Short sleep duration is associated with a greater likelihood of obesity due to an increased apetite caused by sleep deprivation.  Sleep helps maintain a healthy immune system and balances our appetites by helping to regulate levels of the hormones ghrelin and leptin. These “hunger hormones” contribute to feelings of hunger and fullness. Leptin is a hormone, made by fat cells, that decreases your appetite. Ghrelin is a hormone that increases appetite.When we’re sleep deprived, leptin levels decrease and ghrelin levels increase! We may feel the need to eat more, which can lead to weight gain.  In this instance, we typically crave sugary and more fattening foods.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

There is no magic number.  Sleep needs vary depending on your age and activity level.  The following guidelines are from webmd.com.

    • Infants require about 14-15 hours a day.
    • Teenagers need about 8.5-9.5 hours on average.
    • Most adults need 7 to 9 hours a night for the best amount of sleep, although some people may need as few as 6 hours or as many as 10 hours of sleep each day.

What Can I Do to Improve My Sleep?

  • Avoid bright lights.  This includes reducing the use of your laptop, television, and phone. Bright light directly inhibits the release of melatonin. A new study by Spanish scientists suggests that reducing unhealthy weight gain can now be added to melatonin’s impressive roster of benefits. They found that consuming melatonin stimulates the appearance of ‘beige’ fat, which, similar to brown fat, is a heat-generating type of fat that helps your body to burn calories rather than store them. This, the researchers believe, may explain why melatonin helps control body weight, along with its metabolic benefits. Electronic devices also stimulate brain activity, they say, disrupting your ability to drift off to sleep.  Avoid using them in the hour before bed.
  • Consider sleeping with an eyemask and earplugs. I have used both for a couple of years and appreciate the benefits. I fall asleep much more quickly.  According to the upband by Jawbone, while wearing the mask and earplugs, my sleep was also much deeper.  The more deep sleep you have, the more efficiently your body can produce melatonin.  Melatonin has also been shown to slow down the aging process (huffingtonpost.com).  If a mask and earbuds sound too extreme (I admit, I’m a fitness-experiment-nerd), consider using white noise. 
  • Years ago I babysat for a girl who had a white noise machine.  Recently, the sounds outside my bedroom window were louder than usual and it crossed my mind that I need to get one of those machines!  Then I realized “hey I bet there’s an app for that!” Sure enough. I have downloaded an app called White Noise, which has sounds varying from white noise (surprise, surprise) to pink noise to light rain with birds and even sounds replicating a clothes dryer.
  • Take a bath.  The act of cooling the body, like that which happens when you get out of a warm tub, makes us feel tired.  Consider adding epsom salts.  Epsom salt baths are known to ease pain and relieve inflammation.  They have also been shown to reduce muscle soreness.  One of my favorites varieties of epsom salt is the peppermint and eucalyptus essential oils Epsoak Sport blend.
  • Another option is having a cup of non-caffeinated green tea. Green tea contains the amino acid theanine which has been shown to reduce stress and promote restful sleep.  Just be sure to choose decaffeinated!
  • Your body relies on a fine balance of calcium and magnesium to feel less stressed and more relaxed.  Calcium makes muscles contract while magnesium allows them to relax.  When we’re stressed, nerve cells become excited and muscles tense.  An imbalance between these two nutrients can result in fatigue and low energy, muscle tension, spasms, cramps and more.  I occasionally use Natural Calm to maintain balanced levels of calcium and magnesium.
  • Avoid caffeine and late night workouts.  Caffeine and workouts will increase your blood pressure and heart rate, causing you to feel restless and unable to calm down enough to fall asleep.  Try to keep activity and caffeine to a minimum during the last few hours before bed.
  • Keep the room temperature between 65 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit.  If the room becomes uncomfortably hot or cold, you are more likely to wake up, or have trouble falling asleep (webmd.com).

For more information, visit the National Sleep Foundation.  Learn more about balancing sleep, activity and nutrition with my online and in-person training services here.  What helps you fall asleep at night? Let me know by commenting below.