We’ve all heard that if we get up early to train that it energizes us for the rest of the day. And so you give it a try. If you’re fortunate, it works and you’re more productive throughout the day. If it doesn’t, you shouldn’t necessarily keep pushing the envelope until it clicks. You could, quite simply, just need more sleep. We quite literally can’t live without sleep, and yet societal pressures often force us to forego sufficient sleep in lieu of a perpetual need to accomplish more: make more money, have more friends, make more of ourselves—and get in better shape. This desire to acquire comes at tremendous cost though: less long-term quality of life. The quantity and quality of sleep we get is connected to the dietary choices we make (which, not coincidentally, also has a bigger impact on your health and physique than exercise), and in a cyclical fashion those same dietary choices impact sleep.
Finding a way to break this cycle is a crucial step in regaining optimal health for those who get less-than-optimal rest.
What happens when we don’t sleep enough
Too much (more than 9 hours) and too little (less than 7 hours) sleep are both associated with reduced health outcomes. In a review of 634,511 people from around the world, inadequate sleep was associated with an 89% increase in risk of obesity in children and a 55% increase in adults. Lack of sleep can impact optimal hormone levels, increase risk of diabetes, heart disease, and more. While the average adult needs about 7-8 hours of sleep per night, teenagers and children require more. That said, there truly is no such thing as average when it comes to individualized health, and everyone should aim to get the amount of sleep required to feel well rested throughout the day. If consistently sleeping 8 hours is not enough to accomplish that, it may be a good idea to explore other reasons for low energy levels (hormonal influences, excess weight, environmental toxicity, insufficient nutrient intake—especially iron and the B vitamins).
What to do when tired: Exercise or Sleep?
Did you know that getting up early to exercise might actually MAKE you gain weight?
Yes, you read that correctly: you may be better off sleeping that extra hour than getting up early to go to the gym. That’s not to downplay how crucial exercise is your health. But, stuck between the mythological Scylla and Charybdis of your morning routine, what are you to do? Though this may seem like an no-win dilemma, proper planning and some tips on gaining restful sleep can spell a recipe for sustainable success.
Sleep deprivation is common, so helping patients get enough rest takes center stage in many treatment protocols. Evolving research shows us that our sleeping habits are a strong indicator of our ability to maintain a healthy body weight, controlling for other factors such as diet and exercise. This means that two people who eat the same quality and quantity of food, and burn the same number of calories through exercise, may have very different health outcomes based solely on the quantity and quality of their sleep.
Lack of sleep has been associated with decreased leptin levels, altered ability to handle glucose, and elevated ghrelin/cortisol levels, all of which contribute to an elevated appetite.
In one study, 123 overweight and obese men and women who were fed a calorie restricted diet (which should have resulted in fat loss independent of other factors) over the course of at least 15 weeks were unable to lose sufficient weight if they didn’t get enough sleep.The authors predicted that just 1 hour of sleep loss over that time resulted in 0.7 kg of extra weight over the same period (which equates to 5.3 pounds extrapolated over one year). These types of results are staggering for anyone who has dealt with the frustration of being unable to keep weight off in a sustainable way.
Equally important to how much we sleep is our ability to obtain uninterrupted sleep.
Another study showed that those who experienced more fragmented sleep (defined by at least 5 “wake episodes” per night—normal being defined as 4 or less) strongly contributed to magnitude of weight loss. Though the mechanism is not yet fully understood, the study did find dysfunction of the primary control center of our endocrine system: the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. There’s also no such thing as sleep debt we can catch up on: It has been shown that just one night of fragmented sleep can cause reduction in REM sleep and dysfunctional insulin control.
While maintaining an active lifestyle is an important piece to the puzzle of vibrant health, we now understand the risks we take if it comes at the cost of restful sleep. While it may be difficult to find time in our busy routines to exercise, planning ahead and being efficient with our workouts allows us to get the best of both worlds: invigorating activity and reparative rest.
Here are some tips to get more high quality sleep.
Diet impacts quantity and quality of sleep. As if you needed yet another reason to eat a health-promoting whole foods diet containing plenty of fruits and vegetables, research shows us that what we choose to eat can deeply impact how well we sleep. A study of 3,129 Japanese female workers concluded that low intake of vegetables and fish, along with high intake of confectionary, noodles, and beverages with caffeine or added sugar all independently resulted in lower quality of sleep. In addition, skipping breakfast and irregular eating habits lead to reduced sleep quality.
The jury is still out on the ideal proportion of protein, carbohydrate, and fat for long-term improvements in sleep duration. Until that jury comes in, an individualized dietary plan meant to improve other parameters of health should align with optimal sleep patterns. These diets are typically low in added sugar, refined/highly processed foods, fried foods, and trans fats. They are high in fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean sources of protein, and healthy fats such as those found in extra virgin olive oil (monounsaturated fats) and cold water fish (polyunsaturated fats). They are also high in fiber and essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
A few foods which have been traditionally promoted as sleep-inducing have been studied in limited capacity. Elderly patients with insomnia who consumed fresh tart cherry juice twice daily showed improved sleep quality and increased sleep duration by 17 minutes.
In another study, consuming two kiwi fruits an hour before bedtime improved sleep time and sleep quality over four weeks. Adequate dietary consumption of magnesium, B vitamins (especially B3 and B12), and the amino acid tryptophan may also be useful, but further research is needed.
Here are some additional tips to get higher quality sleep.
1) Make a Schedule
Maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle. Try to go to bed at the same time each night, as we truly are able to train our bodies to expect regularity. The time you choose is important as well: sleep prior to midnight is more restful.
2) Power Down
Turn off devices with blue light, such as the light emitted from TVs, phones, and tablets. This light has been shown to inhibit the production of the all-important sleep hormone melatonin. Similarly, try to avoid highly stimulating activity of all kinds, including exercise and stressful conversation, right before bed.
3) Black Out
Try to keep your sleep environment as dark as possible, as any light from the outside interferes with our circadian rhythms. Whenever this is not possible, sleeping masks may be recommended.
4) Ditch The Coffee
Those who metabolize coffee more slowly can be impacted for up to 24 hours by just one cup. While coffee may have some benefit and is not an issue for everyone, consider reducing your intake if you have sleep issues. On that note, if you wake to urinate often during the night, try reducing your intake of fluid 3 hours before bedtime.
5) Have a Snack
Though eating before bed is not generally recommended, those who wake often in the middle of the night may benefit from a small snack high in protein (think a small handful of healthy nuts) to help stabilize their blood sugar throughout the night.
6) Sometimes, Sleep to Satiety
The alarm clock is a very recent addition to our morning routine. All animals besides humans sleep until they feel rested, and for good reason. Sleeping just a few minutes per day short of what our bodies need may be enough to cause harm. Since most of us have no choice but to stick to a routine, take every opportunity you can to listen to your body. At least on weekends, turn off that alarm and allow yourself to sleep in. Your body will thank you.
7) Unwind And Let Go
Choose something relaxing (a warm bath, light reading, calm conversation with a loved one) to add to your bedtime routine. Set your intention on releasing the stresses of the day and remember that with the next morning comes a new opportunity to work toward your goals. Accept what has transpired today, and make an effort to be present in the moment at hand in order to create a more fulfilling tomorrow.
8) Keep Cool
Studies show that a slightly cooler room can be helpful in achieving restful sleep. Sixty-eight degrees is often a helpful starting point.
9) Create an Oasis
Your bed should only be used for sleep and sex. Allow this to become a space for revitalization only, so try to avoid doing work or watching TV in bed for extended periods of time.
But as you’ve learned above, only at a time that’s right for you—and not at the expense of sleep.