After being deprived of a much-needed good night’s sleep, I’m fixated on the topic and have cracked open a book I bought when I was in grad school: Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival, by T.S. Wiley with Bent Formby, Ph.D.
Albeit slightly conspiratorial, this book brings to light the idea that food and a sedentary lifestyle might not be the only things causing the obesity and chronic disease epidemics in this country. More specifically, it points to SLEEP, or a lack thereof, as a highly plausible culprit.
Harkening back to our early days as humans, Wiley notes that we used to sleep 4,370 hours a year. According to data from the National Health Interview Survey, nearly 30% of American adults reported an average of ≤6 hours of sleep per day in 2005-2007. At 5 hours a night, that’s only 1,825 hours a sleep per year. Quite a difference from our ancestors.
Ok, so those are just numbers, and sleep needs vary from person to person, right? Not that dramatically, but that’s not the point.
The bottom line is that we no longer prioritize sleep. With the advent of the light bulb, we have artificially created longer days and shorter nights. And with the advent of the internet, we have a constant flow of stimulus to keep us awake — all lit up on a bright blue screen. We’ve tricked our bodies into behaving like we’re living in an endless summer of long days and short nights.
Why’s that so bad, you ask? Summer’s the best time of year!
Well, I’ll tell you. Long days and short nights of summer used to precede colder, darker months and famine. Our bodies evolved to crave sugar and store fat during the summer months to insure that we’ll have enough fat to survive the winter famine (read rising insulin levels and sugar cravings).
The longer we are exposed to light, the longer cortisol (a stress hormone) is produced in our bodies. The longer we produce cortisol, the more water we retain, the more midsection body weight we gain, and the less melatonin (a chemical essential to proper sleep) we produce.
The less sleep we get, the less effective our immune systems are, and the less we’re equipped to fight off disease, including chronic disease like cancer. Endless summer means endless overload for our bodies.
All that dieting, all that exercising, all that calorie counting goes out the window if you don’t get enough sleep. Your body will literally work against your efforts.
So how much sleep is enough? That differs for everyone, but here’s a great chart from the National Sleep Foundation:
So what next?
I can faintly hear some of you saying, “there’s no way I can find time for more sleep. I’m way too busy.”
Maybe instead of attempting to add hours to your day just yet, start by improving the quality of the sleep you do get. The National Sleep Foundation has some great suggestions:
- Establish consistent sleep and wake schedules, even on weekends
- Create a regular, relaxing bedtime routine such as soaking in a hot bath or listening to soothing music – begin an hour or more before the time you expect to fall asleep
- Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows
- Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex (keep “sleep stealers” out of the bedroom – avoid watching TV, using a computer or reading in bed)
- Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime
- Exercise regularly during the day or at least a few hours before bedtime
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol products close to bedtime and give up smoking
We’ll revisit this topic I’m sure, but for now, start with a few things from this list. Your body and your belly will thank you.