How Improving Your Sleep Quality Can Significantly Improve Your Health and Fat Loss
When you think of ways to improve your health, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Exercise? Diet? Sleep isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind but it has a significant impact on your health. The fact of the matter is that sleep may be more important than both diet and exercise when it comes to general health and fat loss. The average adult in America gets 6-7 hours of sleep per day, which is less than the recommended amount suggested by the National Sleep Foundation. Sleep debt and sleep deprivation have a significant impact on your biochemistry affecting your hormones, brain waves, and nervous system which can alter your metabolism creating an environment that allows your body to store more fat than normal. The good news is that there are a few simple steps you can take to enhance your sleep quality so you can feel more rejuvenated, energized, and even burn more fat.
What is sleep deprivation and how does it affect your body?
Sleep deprivation occurs when an individual gets less sleep than they need to feel awake and alert. People vary in how little sleep is needed to be considered sleep-deprived. Some people such as older adults seem to be more resistant to the effects of sleep deprivation, while others, especially children and young adults, are more vulnerable. Stimulants like coffee and energy drinks, alarm clocks, and external lights—including those from electronic devices—interfere with our “circadian rhythm”or natural sleep/wake cycle.
Body functions affected by sleep deprivation:
- Immune function
- Heightened risk of respiratory disease
- Body weight and body fat
- Higher risk of diabetes
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar
- Hormone production
Hormone response from sleep deprivation
Endocrine System: Your HPA axis and thyroid are known to regulate our body’s ability to burn fat. Your diet and exercise does not impact your ability to burn fat as much as sleep does. Your ability to burn fat and store fat is regulated by your endocrine system and your hormone function.
Thyroid: The thyroid acts on the body to increase the basal metabolic rate, affect protein synthesis, and increase the body’s sensitivity to catecholamines (such as adrenaline) by permissiveness. The thyroid hormones are essential to proper development and differentiation of all cells of the human body. These hormones also regulate protein, fat, and carbohydrate metabolism, affecting how human cells use energetic compounds.
Sleep deprivation slows the function of the thyroid and its ability to metabolize protein, fat, and carbs.
Leptin: The hormone leptin is intricately involved in the regulation of appetite, metabolism and calorie burning. Leptin is the chemical that tells your brain when you’re full, when it should start burning up calories and, by extension, when it should create energy for your body to use.
During sleep, leptin levels increase, telling your brain you have plenty of energy for the time being and there’s no need to trigger the feeling of hunger or the burning of calories. When you don’t get enough sleep, you end up with too little leptin in your body, which, through a series of steps, makes your brain think you don’t have enough energy for your needs. So your brain tells you you’re hungry, even though you don’t actually need food at that time, and it takes steps to store the calories you eat as fat so you’ll have enough energy the next time you need it. The decrease in leptin brought on by sleep deprivation can result in a constant feeling of hunger and a general slowdown of your metabolism.
Ghrelin: The purpose of ghrelin is basically the exact opposite of leptin: It tells your brain when you need to eat, when it should stop burning calories and when it should store energy as fat. During sleep, levels of ghrelin decrease, because sleep requires far less energy than being awake does. People who don’t sleep enough end up with too much ghrelin in their system, so the body thinks it’s hungry and it needs more calories, and it stops burning those calories because it thinks there’s a shortage.
Also, not only does ghrelin cause you to eat more, but it also makes you crave foods high in carbohydrates. So by not sleeping, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of struggle.
Cortisol: This is the stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels are one of the first signs of sleep deprivation. High cortisol levels can cause weight gain, stress, and anxiety. However it is an important hormone in your body. The problem arises when cortisol is produced in the wrong amount and at the wrong time. When your stress levels are high, your body senses danger, so it stocks up on energy, storing fat as protection.
Lack of sleep causes your body to spend more time in a sympathetic state or “alarm state.” Our bodies need sleep to relax and recover allowing us to shift from a sympathetic state to a relaxed parasympathetic state. If you’re sleep deprived, your body doesn’t make that switch, which elevates cortisol levels at night and for an extended period of time.
Insulin: Insulin is your body’s major fat-storing hormone. Studies show that just one night, a twenty-four hour period (which is a short debt of sleep deprivation), can make some people as insulin resistant as a Type II diabetic.
It really has some dysfunction with your insulin’s function and causes extra circulation of sugar in your blood which can get processed in your liver. The sugar will more than likely get stored as belly fat. This is a classic sign of insulin resistance. So we really start to change the function of insulin when we’re sleep deprived.
Human Growth Hormone: HGH is an important part of the body’s endocrine system. It is especially active in the growing child’s maturation. HGH is released by the brain into the bloodstream during sleep, and its release is part of the repair and restoration function of sleep.
Human growth hormones promote a healthy metabolism, enhance your physical performance, and may even help you live longer.
Melatonin: This is a sleep hormone that regulates your body’s circadian timing system (24 hour internal clock). Melatonin requires two factors. It requires an environmental darkness, and it requires a cyclical pattern. It needs to get established and it’s looking for a cycle for it to be produced optimally.
Melatonin increases your body’s ratio of fat burning fat. Brown adipose tissue burns white adipose tissue. We’re putting ourselves at a metabolic disadvantage if we’re not getting sleep, if we’re not allowing our body to produce melatonin.
Relationship between fat and sleep
There are two types of fat and both are hormonally driven. Subcutaneous fat is a layer of fat below the skin. The other type of fat is visceral fat, also known as omentum fat. Visceral fat is fat stored around your organs and it tends to hold around the waistline. Visceral fat is especially dangerous and can lead to disease.
There is a joint publication of the Sleep Research Societyand theAmerican Academy of Sleep Medicine, and the results found that subjects who slept less than six hours a night over the course of the five year study had a 32% gain in visceral fat in comparison to those who slept for more than six hours per night who had an average increase of 13% in visceral fat. This is more than twice as much visceral fat accumulation due to sleep deprivation. As you can see, there is a positive correlation between sleep deprivation and the accumulation of body fat.
Signs of sleep deprivation
Now that you know what sleep deprivation is and the effect it has on your body, let’s identify common signs of sleep deprivation:
- Caffeine dependent
- Depressed mood
- Difficulty learning new concepts
- Inability to concentrate or a “fuzzy” head
- Lack of motivation
- Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings
- Reduced sex drive
How to avoid sleep deprivation
You can avoid sleep deprivation by simply decreasing your sleep debt. If your body needs 8 hours of sleep to function optimally (everyone is different), and you get 6 hours of sleep, this puts you at a sleep debt of two hours. In order to prevent the long term effect of sleep debt, you will want to catch up on the sleep you lost in order prevent sleep deprivation.
To pave the way for better sleep, follow these simple yet effective healthy sleep tips,including:
- Relaxation (meditation and mindful breathing techniques).
- Stick to a sleep schedule,even on weekends.
- Practice a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Evaluate your bedroom to ensure ideal temperature, sound and light.
- Get more sun exposure in the morning between 8am – 10am (circadian timing system).
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.
- Beware of hidden sleep stealers,like alcohol and caffeine.
- Turn off electronics before bed.
- Avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed.
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- Increase overall sleep time (recommend 8-9 hours/day).
- Get through all sleep cycles.
Stage One: Within minutes (sometimes even within seconds!) of nodding off, your brain produces what are called alpha and theta waves and your eye movements slow down. This introduction to sleep is relatively brief, lasting up to seven minutes. Here, you are in light stage sleep, which means that you’re somewhat alert and can be easily woken. It’s during this stage of sleep that people often indulge in brief “catnaps.”
Stage Two: During this stage, which is also fairly light, the brain produces sudden increases in brain wave frequency known as sleep spindles. Then brain waves slow down. If you were to schedule a “power nap” you’d want to wake up after this stage of sleep.
Stages Three and Four: This stage is the beginning of deep sleep, as the brain begins producing slower delta waves. You won’t experience any eye movement or muscle activity. At this point, it becomes a little harder for you to be awakened because your body becomes less responsive to outside stimuli. The brain produces even more delta waves and you move into an even deeper, more restorative stage of sleep next. It’s most difficult to wake up during this stage. This is when the body repairs muscles and tissues, stimulates growth and development, boosts immune function, and builds up energy for the next day.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep: You generally enter REM sleep about 90 minutes after initially falling asleep, and each REM stage can last up to an hour. An average adult has five to six REM cycles each night. During this final phase of sleep, your brain becomes more active. This is when most dreaming occurs, your eyes jerk quickly in different directions (hence, the name!), heart rate and blood pressure increase, and breathing becomes fast, irregular, and shallow. REM sleep plays an important role in learning and memory function, since this is when your brain consolidates and processes information from the day before so that it can be stored in your long-term memory.
New recommendations from National Sleep Foundation
- School age children (6-13):Sleep range widened by one hour to 9-11 hours (previously it was 10-11)
- Teenagers (14-17):Sleep range widened by one hour to 8-10 hours (previously it was 8.5-9.5)
- Younger adults (18-25):Sleep range is 7-9 hours (new age category)
- Adults (26-64):Sleep range did not change and remains 7-9 hours
- Older adults (65+):Sleep range is 7-8 hours (new age category)