According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), adults need at least 7 hours of sleep a night to maintain good health. However, more than a third of the population fails to meet this goal.
While some people short change their sleep time because of hectic work or social schedules, others suffer from a disorder such as insomnia that interferes with good quality sleep. The hazards of a chronic sleep deficit range from drowsy driving and poor performance to a greater risk for chronic diseases including heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.
The obesity link
Interestingly, there is an increasing amount of research that links lack of regular sleep with weight gain and obesity. The Nurses’ Health Study followed the health habits including their weight, diet, exercise and sleep for roughly 60,000 women over a period of 16 years. None of the participants were obese when the study began. 16 years later it was concluded that those women who slept 5 hours or less per night had a 15 percent higher risk of becoming obese over the years, compared to the women who slept 7 hours per night. The short sleepers also had 30 percent higher risk of gaining 30 pounds over the course of the study. In another analysis of obesity among short sleepers, scientists found that the average BMI dropped .35 points with each additional hour of sleep the individuals reported.
What’s the connection?
There are several possible explanations for the link between sleep and weight. One theory is that short sleepers tend to snack more and take in more total calories. Another aspect is the effect sleep has on brain chemistry. In particular, sleep deprivation may alter the activation of the brain reward systems that control energy intake, judgement, and food choices. In some studies, very short sleepers consumed a smaller variety of foods, ate fewer vegetables, gravitated toward sweet or high-fat food items, and ate more in the evenings. They also tended to have lower insulin sensitivity, a factor that can raise the risk for diabetes. In addition, short sleepers are often chronically tired, which can lead to less physical activity.
Weekend sleep not a cure
It is tempting to think that sleeping in on weekends can repair a weekday sleep deficit. Unfortunately, the metabolic problems caused by lack of sleep, appear to return if you remain chronically sleep deprived. Researchers found that even when 5-hour-a-night sleepers were allowed to sleep 10 or more hours on weekends, their bodies still had problems regulating blood sugar.
Tips for a good night’s sleep
If you find yourself in a cycle of poor sleep, your first step is to look at your lifestyle factors that may be to blame. Try to avoid big meals or spicy food within 2 or 3 hours of going to bed. Drinking alcohol or caffeine too late in the day can also disrupt sleep cycles. Other things you can do for better quality sleep include going to bed and waking up at the same time each day and keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and comfortable. It’s also a good idea to replace “screen time” with relaxing activities such as taking a bath or reading before turning out the lights.
So let’s recap
Getting less than the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night disrupts your metabolism and can lead to obesity. Short sleepers tend to snack more and consume less healthy foods than people who get adequate sleep. You can help yourself avoid excess weight gain and lower your risk of chronic disease by making it a habit to regularly get enough good quality sleep each night.