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Sleep Science

When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, it changed our sleep habits forever. Today, everything is open or available to us 24 hours a day, and that’s not good news for our slumber. Television, computers, city noise and nightlife have all contributed to fewer sleep hours and more problems with health.

It takes up fully a third of our life-span (at least it should), but have you ever wondered why you even need to sleep? Did you know it is only us humans who deprive ourselves of sleep? No other animal does this — not even those that are nocturnal.

Sleep Research

Philosophers as far back as Plato and Aristotle had their ideas, but Dr. James Krueger, professor of neurobiology at Washington State University, is as close as anyone has ever come to providing real answers. Krueger, a scientist who studies sleep and sleep disorders, says adequate sleep appears to be a key factor in our ability to prevent and fight off illnesses.

Acknowledging that sleep is an area that is largely understudied, Krueger found that deep sleep, taken within a short period after infection, helped animal research subjects fight off illness and recover. Subjects with similar infections that did not get adequate sleep had more serious symptoms and did not recover.

Weight Loss and Sleep

Lack of sleep can disrupt our lives and our health in a variety of ways. One such way is to make us fat, or make it difficult to lose weight despite our best attempts. Science is now able to explain some of the mysteries behind sleep and weight-gain, and our inabilty to lose weight.

One of the players in this mystery is Leptin. A protein hormone produced by fat cells, leptin regulates body weight and metabolism. Leptin acts as your body's own appetite suppressant because it causes fat loss and a decrease in appetite. People who do not get an adequate amount of sleep have lower levels of leptin, so they are not reaping the weight loss rewards of this wonderful hormone.

Ghrelin is another player: a hormone produced by the stomach which stimulates hunger. If you have higher levels of Ghrelin, your desire to eat will be stronger. People who do not get an adequate amount of sleep have higher levels of Ghrelin, therefore the appetite is increased. In a nutshell, in order to diminish your appetite, you need to get better sleep.

Another related hormone is called cortisol, which is released into the bloodstream in response to some type of stress. Sleep deprivation, a form of stress, causes an increase in the level of cortisol which makes us feel hungry whether or not we really are. Over a period of time, sleep distress can cause weight gain because of this increase in appetite.

Growth hormone is a protein that plays a large role in the control of metabolism. Growth hormone stimulates cells to break down fat and suppresses their ability to accumulate circulating lipids. It also helps the body maintain blood glucose levels. Our levels of growth hormone decrease when we have trouble sleeping, thereby lessening the opportunity to lose fat and build muscle.

John Winkelman, MD, PhD, medical director of the Sleep Health Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital says: "What most people do not realize is that better sleep habits may be instrumental to the success of any weight management plan."

RELATED STUDY

In a Nurses' health study which began in 1976, the sleeping patterns and weight levels of 68,000 women were monitored over a course of 26 years. The study reveals that women who get 5 or 6 hours of sleep gained more weight than women who sleep 7 hours a night. The women who slept 5 hours a night were 32% more likely to experience significant weight gain (as much as 33 pounds!) and 15% more likely to be obese. Those getting 6 hours of sleep had a 12% likelihood of significant weight gain and a 6% chance of becoming obese. While there may be several contributing factors to these findings, the bottom line is there is a definite correlation between sleep and weight.

Less Sleep = Weight Gain

Why?

Because while you are enjoying natural sleep, your body is acting as the finely tuned machine it is, busy doing its own repair work that it could not accomplish during waking hours. This includes regeneration of damaged cells, repairing tissue, allowing the mind to mend itself and an overall renewal process for the entire body so that upon wakening, you feel fresh and ready to tackle the day.

When we rob our bodies of this much-needed healing time, our bodies respond negatively in the form of fatigue, irritability, emotional problems, weight gain, poor health, etc. And that is just in the short run. Longer down the road, after a build up of sleep deprivation, the cumulative effect becomes more serious and potentially life threatening.

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Losing some shut eye is not considered as harmless as it used to be. More research is continually being done to confirm the association between sleep debt and an assortment of health problems. Sleep disorder has risen to epidemic proportions and most folks don't even know that have it!

Next time you think about cutting back on sleep, think about this…

Increased risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other serious illnesses

  • Sleep disorders that remain untreated for several years are linked to a host of serious illnesses such as heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity and psychiatric problems because sleep disruption affects crucial hormones and proteins that play roles in these diseases. Lack of sleep is serious business!
  • Lack of sleep elevates substances in the blood that are responsible for increasing inflammation in the body, which has recently been discovered as a major risk factor for heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity and can even predispose you to a shorter life span.
  • Insulin sensitivity is a result of sleep deprivation because of disruption to hormones and this condition is a trigger for diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
  • Blood pressure drops during sleep, therefore less than 6 hours of sleep can contribute to an increased risk of high blood pressure.
  • It is believed that sleep problems can increase the production of stress hormones which drive up blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart attacks and stroke.

Weight Gain

  • Raging hormones… When your body does not get enough rest, your hormones fly into chaos. One of many results is glucose intolerance which sets in and tells your hunger receptors that you want to eat more. The sleep deprived are more likely to reach for sweets and starches over veggies and fruit when that hunger sets in, thus throwing the body into a terribly unhealthy cycle and inhibiting weight loss. Studies also reveal a tendency to replace sleep loss with extra calories. While trapped in this cycle, the foods you eat are not metabolized as well because of the hormone imbalance, basically setting off a domino effect of weight gain, poor health, more sleep loss and the potential for serious diseases down the road. The body is so carefully tuned that when one aspect is thrown off-kilter, the rest goes with it.
  • Today 2 out of 3 adults are overweight; almost 1 in 3 is obese.
  • Generally, we do not burn as many calories when functioning on less sleep and the body's reaction is to hoard calories as fat, making our weight loss goals more difficult than they need to be.
  • After just a few days of denying yourself decent sleep, the hormones that regulate appetite can cause you to be hungry even when you're not. And we all know what that leads to…weight gain!
  • Studies have shown that those getting an average of 5 hours of sleep are over 70% more likely to be obese that those with 7-9 hours.

Tendency to make mistakes and errors in judgment

  • Losing just 1½ hours of sleep in one night can decrease your alertness by 32% the following day.
  • A 2002 poll taken by the National Sleep Foundation found that a whopping 37% of Americans are so sleepy during the day that it interferes with daily activities.
  • Studies have shown that the off-balance effects of sleep deprivation can be similar to the effects of having several alcoholic beverages.

Crankiness, irritability, aggressiveness and paranoia

  • Anyone who has missed sleep has noticed there is a tendency to be irritable, short of temper, cranky and generally not so pleasant to be around. Chronic sleeplessness and insomnia can, over time, not only wear on our own nerves, but on those of people around us.

Appearance

  • Without enough sleep, you will look haggard and fatigued. Over time, this will lead to a more aged appearance.
  • Sleep is required in order to have glowing skin. During sleep, the body goes into repair mode to regenerates skin, muscles, blood and brain cells. There is a reason they call it "beauty sleep."
  • Dark circles under the eyes can be caused by sleep deprivation.
  • When you are more awake and alert, you have an overall fresher and brighter appearance than when you lose sleep.

Depression and Mood

  • Depressive illnesses are almost always linked to sleep disturbances; for those with anxiety it may be difficult to sleep because of obsessive worrying, intrusive thoughts, inability to relax and "turn off the switch."
  • Many test studies on sleep treatment find that those without adequate sleep are generally more depressed, tense, moody, stressed and irritable than good sleepers.
  • Lack of sleep can cause an over-emotional state and mood swings.

Immune System

  • When we fall asleep, the immune system begins the business of restoring and detoxifying itself. Even one night of sleep deprivation can suppress the immune system significantly.
  • This is the time when your body does major housecleaning, taking care of wastes that have accumulated during the day and repairing cellular damage.
  • Energy Level

    • Sleep deprivation zaps energy. If you have gotten used to a daily lack of energy, you may not realize that you could gain more energy and feel much better if you simply had consistently better sleep.

    Relationship problems

    • Humans generally take out their stress and irritability on the ones they love.
    • Different sleep habits might cause one person to change bedrooms.
    • Lack of sleep can affect moral judgment as well as impair decision making skills, prompting possible problems between people.

    Cognitive Function and Intelligence

    • During sleep, the brain is busy regenerating neurons in the cerebral cortex so that it may continue to function properly. The brain's cerebral cortex can only accomplish this during sleep, not during wakefulness. After periods of reduced sleep, neurons may begin to malfunction, causing observable changes in a person's behavior, such as slurred speech, slowed reaction time, focus, logical reasoning etc.
    • Natural sleep helps to restore and rejuvenate your memory processes, energize your nervous and immune systems and stimulate overall growth and development.
    • A brain that has not had adequate rest has to work harder and accomplishes less. Some parts of the brain don't even function when not enough sleep has been acquired.
    • If you sleep only 6 hours per night, you lose the most important hour of REM sleep that your mind uses to heal itself.

    Injuries and deadly accidents

    • Driver fatigue is responsible for an estimated 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 deaths each year. Lack of sleep can be dangerous, because it can impair our ability to drive by slower response times, not being alert, general drowsiness and bad judgment.
    • The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 20% of all drivers have dozed off at least once behind the wheel.

    Poor Health

    • Sleep deprived individuals generally do not pay as much attention to their health as those with good sleep habits.
    • If you do not get enough sleep, your body is unable to optimally regenerate itself. Your body uses the sleep hours to remove damaged cells, generate new cells, repair tissue damage, clean out waste products and renew all bodily functions. Without adequate sleep, these processes are cut short and your health suffers because of it. If lack of sleep continues for an extended period of time, serious and potentially life-threatening consequences could be the result.

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