In April, the New York Times published an article titled Sleeping Too Little in Middle Age May Increase Dementia Risk, Study Finds. The first sentence read: “The research, tracking thousands of people from age 50 on, suggests those who sleep six hours or less a night are more likely to develop dementia in their late 70s.” I quickly checked my Fitbit app which tracks my sleep and saw that over the past week I wasn’t getting 6 hours every night. Yikes! I had been extra busy with work and family stuff, making sure I was exercising and there was healthy food in the refrigerator, and my sleep was sacrificed in the process. Something’s gotta give when there is so much to do and only 24 hours in a day, right?! And for me, it seems to be sleep.
I think for a lot of us sleep is one of the first things to go when we feel pressed for time. We view sleep as a luxury and think that the benefits of limiting the hours we spend asleep outweigh the costs. But the reality is, there are big consequences of insufficient sleep on our health and wellness, including making it harder to lose weight and increasing our chances of certain diseases. Without sleep, our cells and tissues don’t have the chance to recover from the wear and tear of daily life. Major restorative functions in the body such as tissue repair, muscle growth, and protein synthesis occur almost exclusively during sleep. Insufficient sleep has been linked to medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and now dementia. Most experts have concluded that getting enough high-quality sleep may be as important to health and well-being as nutrition and exercise.
So, if you eat well and exercise regularly, but don’t get at least seven hours of sleep every night, you may be undermining all of your other efforts to lose weight and improve your health.
Interestingly, these 3 parts of health – exercise, eating well, and sleep – are all interconnected. In fact, there are really powerful links between sleep and eating. Our food choices affect the quality and amount of our sleep. And the quality and amount of our nightly rest have a big impact on our eating habits. And both affect our metabolism, hormones, and our ability to lose weight. Research shows that diets filled with fiber, complex carbohydrates, high-quality protein, and healthy fats are associated with more deeply restful, restorative, and plentiful sleep, with fewer awakenings and reduced risk for insomnia. Not getting enough sleep alters the hormones in the body that regulate appetite, increases cravings for salty, fatty, sugary foods, and increases overall daily calorie intake. And for many of us who are up late instead of sleeping, that means late-night snacking which means extra calories and risks for weight gain, acid reflux, and sleep troubles.
Moreover, the timing of eating matters—for digestive and metabolic health, for weight control, and for sleep. This is because not only what you eat, but when you eat impacts both the composition and function of our gut microbiome (the microorganisms present in the gastrointestinal tract). And our gut microbiome directly affects our mental and physical health, influencing our sleep, mood, metabolism, cardiovascular and circulatory health, as well as the immune system, and our risk for chronic disease. Eating healthy foods at times that align with our circadian rhythm, optimizes the relationship between eating and sleep for better sleep, weight loss, and overall health.
The same is true for exercise! Research shows that regular exercise increases sleep quality by reducing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, helps us stay asleep throughout the night, and increases the amount of deep sleep that enables our brain and body to rejuvenate. Likewise, the better you sleep, the more energy you will have for physical activity the following day. But again, timing matters. Exercise causes your body to release hormones and raises your core body temperature, both of which keep some people awake when they want to be sleeping.
Pay attention to your body and how it responds to your diet, exercise, and sleep. What happens when you don’t get a good night's sleep? What happens when you eat unhealthy foods or snack late at night? How do you feel when you incorporate movement into your day and how does that impact your eating and sleeping? Notice the impact of the ‘when’ of your eating and exercise as much of the ‘what’. And sleep for at least 7 hours a night! The right balance of a healthy diet, movement, and sleep help keep our weight and metabolism on track, increase our ability to live healthier, more productive lives, and help us to feel our best.