I have a very real fear that one of these days I will fall asleep at the wheel as I drive home from work.
Like most Americans, I don’t get as much sleep as I should. My daily commute is nearly 30 minutes, and I (frighteningly) find myself nearly nodding off frequently.
I now understand why parents put babies in the car seat and drive them around to get them to sleep.
Lack of sleep is not only dangerous, it affects our lives in countless ways. We already know it isn’t good for our health, but not even I knew just how much of a role it plays in efforts to maintain or lose weight.
Some experts argue sleep is the single most important component to weight maintenance. Think about that- more important than diet or exercise. There are some compelling arguments.
Your body is busy while you sleep.
Sleep is more than just rest for the mind and body. It is a time for the body to accomplish many important tasks, including digestion, recovery, and repair. Your body runs on a very real internal clock, and sleep time is set aside for these functions to take place. If you aren’t sleeping long enough or well enough, your body can’t complete these vital processes completely. Some things will be “off.”
As someone who has worked an early morning or overnight shift for most of the last eight years, I can tell you I have experienced this first hand. You can do everything right- eat healthy, exercise regularly, drink plenty of water, but if your sleep is abnormal or inadequate, your body will not function as its best.
There is also scientific evidence that sleep deprivation has a significant effect on body hormones, including those that regulate body fat. That means if you chronically get less sleep than you should, you are going to have a hard time not only losing, but also NOT gaining weight.
Sleep-deprivation affects your food choices.
You are much less likely to eat healthy if you are sleep deprived. Ever been exhausted from a night of no sleep and found a bagel impossible to resist? Your body needs energy to function, and one of the fastest forms of energy comes from high glycemic carbs like bagels. And donuts. And cookies. When you are sleep-deprived, your body instinctually craves anything it can quickly turn into usable energy. The problem, of course, is once that energy is used, there is nothing left and you crash. Plus, you’ve just over-loaded on sugar, calories and fat your body didn’t need and will now store, causing you to gain weight.
Sleeplessness makes you take risks.
Another reason you’re likely to scarf down that donut is that sleep-deprivation actually inhibits the part of our brain that evaluates risk. Simply put: we are more likely to take risks when we are operating on little sleep. This can manifest in any number of ways, everything from poor food choices to impulse shopping. Studies have shown our brains don’t weight consequences in the same way when we are sleep-deprived. It’s harder to see the risk versus reward.
No sleep means no energy.
Of course the other obvious ramifications of too little sleep- you’re tired. When you’re tired you aren’t likely to go to the gym (and if you do you probably won’t put much energy into your workout) and you aren’t likely to feel like cooking, preparing food, planning for tomorrow, etc. These are all things you have to be willing to do if you are going to live a healthy lifestyle.
How much is enough?
So how much sleep do you need? It varies by individual but most adults need 7 to 8 hours a night. If you are intuitive and really listen to your body, you can identify what amount is best for you. My magic number is 7 and a half hours. I feel my best with exactly this amount of sleep.
Make sleep a priority.
How can we get more sleep? There is no easy answer to this one. We are all busy, we have jobs, families and responsibilities. But the evidence is strong enough to suggest sleep should play high on your priority list.
Sleep should even take precedence over exercise. Ideally, you can make time for both, but if you are just so busy that working out means sacrificing 30 to 60 minutes of sleep when you are already only sleeping a few hours a night, I say forget the exercise and get the sleep. Find other ways to incorporate movement into your day and try to eat as healthy as possible.
We should never feel guilty or lazy for insisting on a solid night’s rest each night. Our society tends to look at those people who burn the candle at both ends and work more than they sleep as go-getters. We envy them. How do they do it? A very small percentage of the population is said to be genetically blessed such that they only need a few hours of sleep a night. The vast majority of humans do not fall into that category, and will quickly see and feel the effects of regularly skimping on shut-eye.
Think of wellness as a recipe made up of many ingredients: healthy diet, regular exercise, stress-management, and yes- sleep. Put these things together in the right combination and not only will your quality of life improve but you’ll be much more likely to have success in your weight loss goals.