Take a Nap and Drop Excess Weight

No, it’s not a joke.  Research is telling us there is a connection between lack of sleep and the struggle to lose excess weight.  Plus, we're told that the lack of sleep can go so far as to contribute to weight gain.  That's enough to keep you up at night—and you thought it was Restless Appetite Syndrome.  I can hear all you heavy sleepers saying, Great!  While all the insomniacs are saying, great, the latest thing to worry about.  But don’t jump to conclusions, it could help explain some things, such as why some people can’t seem to shift that excess baggage—it could be related to their inability to get a good night’s sleep.  While it may sound too strange to be true, researchers have found an interesting correlation between the amount of sleep a person gets and their chances of weight control. 

According to findings at the Sleep Medicine Program at the New York University School of Medicine, sleep disruption and the lack of quality sleep are shown to disrupt more than a good night's sleep—it can create a hormonal imbalance.  Certainly, the link between hormones and sleep is not breaking news, but the link between appetite control and catching quality Z's is newsworthy. 

The director of the Sleep Medicine Program, Dr. David Rapoport, states that new research shows that two important hormones, leptin and ghrelin, not only influence our appetites, but their vital production is influenced by the amount of sleep a person gets.  Apparently, a sleepless night is often followed by an increased appetite the next day—the result of an upset in this dynamic hormonal duo.

The Hormone – Sleep Connection

It seems there's a balancing act going on between the hormones leptin and ghrelin.  Think of ghrelin as the bad cop of appetite stimulation, whispering in your ear, 'Just one more helping.' While the good cop leptin shouts to your brain, 'Hey, that's enough, I'm full.'  So when did these two get in bed together?  Well, they didn't.  The gastrointestinal tract is the production ground for ghrelin; and leptin is conveniently produced in your fat cells.  But without a healthy amount of sleep, the bad cop wins—resulting in excess levels of ghrelin—and, you guessed it, a stimulated appetite, an increased desire to chow down, a weakened ability to say No more!, and extra unwanted calories.  That's enough to make you hit the sack!  But that's a good thing, because getting more sleep helps to adjust this delicate hormonal balance. 

Getting quality sleep (at least eight hours of comfortable, uninterrupted sleep) is vital not only because of the hormonal battle of the bulge, but studies done at Stanford University’s Center for Human Sleep Research now indicate that an unwanted drop in leptin, and an unwanted rise is ghrelin, increases the desire for calorie-dense foods increased by a whopping 45%. 

It gets worse!  Stanford partnered with the University of Wisconsin and studied 1,000 sleepers.  After volunteers reported their sleep habits, it became clear that those who did not get the coveted eight hours a night also experienced a higher level of body fat—this higher level apparently was associated with their unhealthy sleep patterns.  Those who slept the least weighed the most!

Throw sleep apnea into the mix.  Dominic Roca, MD, director of the Connecticut Center for Sleep Medicine at Stamford Hospital, reported that those who suffer from sleep apnea are at an increased risk of this fat-producing hormonal imbalance because of their inability to sleep well.  So sleep apnea sufferers are more likely to be obese.  The good news is that people who are successfully treated for their sleep apnea, tend to be able to achieve more hormonal balance, and thus are able to achieve a balance in their struggle with excess weight.  Doctors point out that these two hormones seem to fluctuate more in sleep apnea suffers (when compared to those who have non-apnea related sleep disruption), but nonetheless, it is clear to researchers that the inability to achieve quality sleep is affecting people’s weight—and general health—dramatically.

In the past few decades, researchers have uncovered extraordinary data regarding the inner relationship of our mind and body during the sleep state.  While we are asleep, there is a symphony going on, and our hormones are directing the interplay and the resulting harmony.  During sleep, the pancreas secretes insulin, the hormone that allows the body to digest glucose.  Without regular adequate sleep, this secretion can become disturbed, and sets the stage for diabetes and obesity.  While we sleep, growth hormones—very important players in our bodily performance—are secreted; these play a significant role in the ratio or balance of fat and muscle.  And don’t forget the key player, the hormone leptin, is responsible for telling us that we have eaten enough and that we are “full.”  Without proper sleep, these hormones “play off key,” and this contributes to food cravings, particularly for carbohydrates; again, the result is an imbalance in the proportion of fat and muscle.  Having a healthy “diet” of sleep is also a key ingredient for a strong immune system.   While we sleep our immune system undergoes restoration and becomes stronger; lack of sleep is shown to alter the white blood cell count, and makes it much more difficult for our bodies to fight off germs, viruses and infections. 

So what’s a sleeper (or non-sleeper) to do?

First off, if you’re having trouble sleeping, check with a trusted health care practitioner to rule out any medical conditions that may be responsible for your lack of sleep, such as sleep apnea—and it does affect women as well as men. You may also want to consider having your thyroid gland checked, as a glandular gland imbalance can affect your sleep cycles. The thyroid gland produces a hormone associated with metabolism and, like exercise, it burns up body tissue. When a person has too much of this hormone, their NREM non-dream sleep is increased, just like the person who exercises in the afternoon. When a person is lacking in this hormone, they often experience fatigue, and their time spent in NREM sleep is reduced. When these hormone levels are balanced, a return to the natural sleep cycles takes place.

Interestingly, when a person exercises in the afternoon, they have less REM dream-sleep, and more NREM sleep, the body’s attempt to rebuild body tissue. (You may want to consider this when deciding what time of day to exercise, especially if you are trying to increase your ability to recall your dreams.)

Once you’re sure there’s not a medical reason why you can’t get enough sleep, then you can proceed to tap into some natural remedies and ways to help you get some good shut-eye. Here’s a few of my favorites:

Consider trying GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) a non-essential amino acid discovered in 1950. GABA is referred to as the "brain's natural calming agent". By inhibiting over-stimulation of the brain, GABA may help promote relaxation and ease nervous tension. Unlike some relaxants that make us feel drowsy and woozy, GABA doesn’t do that. GABA simply eases anxiety. GABA is a natural stress-reducer, and some people find that GABA supplements also help with pain reduction. GABA also appears to inhibit nerve cells in the brain from firing haphazardly, which helps contribute to overall brain health.

In addition to GABA, there’s Chamomile Flower Extract. The benefits of this daisy-like flower dates back to ancient Rome. Chamomile has been shown to help reduce anxiety, calm the nerves, help balance an upset tummy, and promote restful sleep. Chamomile is a natural for helping relax the mood, and help you unwind so you can get some sleep. It has a gentle sedative effect (without causing grogginess) allowing you to fall asleep sooner without waking up to any harsh side effects.

If you find that you struggle to get to sleep at night, there are some common sense approaches to increase your chances of getting some shut-eye. Here’s a few to ponder:

DEVELOP A ROUTINE We are creatures of habit, and we find comfort in repetition. Just like children need a nightly routine, so do we. Set your body clock by going to bed and getting up at the same time.

SHHH! ADULT SLEEPING! Create a “quiet time” in your household. Designate an hour or so each night before going to bed as quiet time, even if you live alone, but particularly if you live with children. This will allow the energy of the house and everyone in it to settle down.

WALK OFF STRESS A short after-dinner walk in the night air can help you to fall asleep more easily. But make sure to allow at least three hours between a workout and going to bed. You can do a bit of yoga or stretching before bed to help you relax. Try stretching your feet and ankles a bit, to help avoid those pesky night cramps.

STOP THE INTAKE Try not to go to sleep with a full stomach. By allowing a few hours to digest a meal, your system can relax and focus on going to sleep, rather than digesting a late dinner. If you must have a bedtime snack, make it something light and low fat, like a piece of fruit or yogurt, or a cup of warm soy milk.

SAY NO TO CAFFEINE Caffeine can take hours to get out of your system and it can keep you awake for hours into the night. Remember that many types of cola are loaded with caffeine, as well as tea, chocolate and many pain relievers. If you are a coffee drinker, limit yourself to one or two cups, in the morning only.

NO ALCHOLOL! Avoid alcohol before bedtime, too. Even though alcohol can help you to relax initially, it is known to wake people up a few hours later with thirsty feelings of “dry mouth.” Alcohol, caffeine and “sleeping pills” are known to inhibit the stage of sleep where our dreams take place. Also, certain medications prescribed to treat depression can create insomnia, so check with your doctor.

The old saying tells us to get our ‘beauty sleep,’ but we’re learning now that sleep has more to do with our hormones and weight than we ever considered before. It’s clear that good, plentiful, healthy sleep provides a profound inner balance that science is only beginning to understand—plus it feels so good!

By Cindy Gray

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