Thursday, June 21, 2007

Dream Away

As Americans battle their bulging waistlines with pills, Ab Lounges, crash diets, hours in the gym, Joggin' in a Jug, or some other program or drug (or even surgery), they may be ignoring a simple but effective ally in maintaining their health: sleep. Research on how sleep affects weight and general health is still in its infancy, but there are already important academic studies that link sleep to obesity and decreased life expectancy among many other health problems (increased stress, digestive disorders, high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke/heart attack, it's a long list).

How much sleep is enough? Well, everyone is different, but it seems the greatest health risks occur primarily among those who sleep less than seven hours per night, those who have frequently interrupted sleep, and those with sleep disorders. Most people have an "ideal" sleep time of 7-9 hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep.

Many Americans seem to take pride in "getting by" on less sleep, linking their lack of rest with good work ethic and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. That simply feeds the "faster" culture that has been discussed here before. Like poor dietary habits, the cumulative effects will not be felt for years or maybe decades, so the current consequences of just "feeling bad" or tired are tolerated. Sleep is sometimes viewed as "wasted" time, and people even go as far as to avoid it or fight it off by staying up too late, then relying on caffeine to jump start them in the morning and keep them awake in the afternoons and evenings. We have more important things to do than, say, give our body its biologically required time to rest, heal, and keep us healthy.

Our body regulates certain bodily functions while we sleep. In regards to weight control, two very important hormones are regulated primarily during sleep. Leptin and ghrelin may sound like Tolkien characters, but in actuality they are hormones that regulate our appetite and our "full" mechanism.

One hormone, ghrelin, which triggers appetite in humans, was found at higher
levels in people who regularly underslept. Another hormone, leptin, which lets
the body know when it is full and should stop eating, was found at much lower
levels in people who did not get enough sleep.(1)

Depriving our bodies of sleep disrupts our ability to identify real hunger or when we feel full. Obviously, this contributes to overreating and late-night snacking which leads to excess caloric intake.

Apart from weight gain, our bodies do important repair work while we rest. When engaging in physical training, increased strength, endurance, and speed all come from a simple formula: stress+recovery. Too many rely on a stress+stress pattern. When a goal is achieved, they immediately push to the next goal. In my training, I do no more than 3-4 "hard" runs per week. The other days are strictly easy, pleasurable runs or off days. Doing 6-7 hard workouts per week does not make me faster (trust me, I've tried this). It wears me down and sets me up for injury and burnout. I think the formula for daily life is similar: work hard, play hard, rest hard...well, that does not quite work, but you get the idea.

If you are a Navy Seal, maybe you have to condition yourself to survive on four hours of sleep per week during Hell Week (first week of training). But, for those of us living our daily lives without the immediate threat of extreme sleep deprivation or "sleep torture," we should make sure that we are getting adequate shut-eye. It helps us recover, repair tissue, "reset" our brains, control our appetites and hunger mechanisms, maintain a healthy body weight, and lowers our risk for myriad health problems.

There is an old saying that the sleep-deprived often trumpet in their defense: "I'll sleep when I'm dead." C'est vrai, but perhaps we can prolong the coming of the Big Sleep by taking getting (roughly) eight hours nightly in the present time. Adequate sleep can improve one's quality of life simply by giving a biological need it's proper place in our list of priorities.

I knew that there had to be a reason I had missed out on the Kroger 100% Natural love fest. When I picked up a box in the store this week, I remembered why: 2 g of Trans Fat per serving. I calmly put it back on the shelf. This "100% Natural" is a farce.

"Kroger, the nation's biggest food retailer after Wal-Mart, sells a store-brand
granola, '100% Natural Cereal,' that contains partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil. But none of its natural-category products include high-fructose corn syrup, Kroger spokesman Gary Huddleston says."(2)
Shame on you, Kroger. The "100% Natural" title is incredibly misleading. It's like "All Natural" 7UP. It still has high fructose corn syrup. I'll stick with Kashi.



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Mother of a Newborn said...

"it seems the greatest health risks occur primarily among those who sleep less than seven hours per night, those who have frequently interrupted sleep..."

Oh man, I am toast.

-- Amanda

Cort said...


Yes, I thought about new moms as I was reading the articles and writing this. Fortunately, infancy does not last forever.

Or, maybe we are just spoiled by Simon's good night-time sleeping. :)

Losing sleep while caring for infants has to be like eating cake on your birthday: it doesn't REALLY count, does it?!?!

Anonymous said...

100% Natural is still sweet, sweet cereal nectar and there are worse things for you to eat. I eat it three/four times a year--one day=one box.

Stellar said...

I'm surprised I'm still walking the earth at this rate...