January 21, 2022 3 min read
Studies found already in the 1970s that modern life is making us chronically sleep-deprived. More specifically, they found that a little over a century ago, people slept for 9 hours on average, whereas today, most people seem to get less than 7 hours of sleep.
One consequence of our growing sleep debt is that a greater number of people are now struggling with excess weight and other metabolic problems than in previous times. That is because sleep and your metabolism are intricately connected.
Consistently getting the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep is not only important for focus, attention, and your overall ability to function, but for your metabolism as well. Here is why that’s the case and what steps you need to take to improve the quality of your sleep.
Sleep is a highly active state during which countless biochemical processes take place, many of which regulate your metabolism.
During sleep, the metabolic rate drops by 15% and oxygen consumption by 10%, for instance. Researchers believe this sets the stage for the body to repair free radical damage. Metabolic processes generate free radicals as a byproduct, which cause cell damage and disease if left unchecked.
The levels of growth hormone and cortisol levels also increase while we are sleeping, stimulating the production of insulin-like growth factor 1 and controlling metabolism and tissue growth. Sleep even seems to affect the balance of the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin.
Because many metabolic processes are regulated when we’re in bed, it’s not surprising that experimental and observational studies show sleep deprivation leads to metabolic derangements.
Take, for example, data from the Sleep Heart Health Study which shows that those sleeping less than the recommended 7 to 8 hours per night had an almost 3 times higher chance of developing diabetes than those who slept normally.
Sleep can also influence your appetite, further causing trouble for your metabolic health. Studies on healthy subjects found that sleep deprivation lowers the levels of appetite-suppressing leptin by almost 20%. This explains why many people find their appetite goes up after a night or several of poor sleep.
Why and how sleep loss causes metabolic derangements and changes in appetite isn’t fully understood, but several theories suggest it may have to do with a dysregulated stress response following sleep deprivation.
There’s also evidence that disorders that get in the way of normal sleep, most notably sleep apnea, can increase your risk of weight gain and type II diabetes regardless of how much you sleep. This is because sleep apnea and other sleep disorders disrupt normal sleep architecture.
Seeing sleep as a necessity, not a luxury is one step towards better and overall metabolic health. If you have problems falling and staying asleep or getting enough high-quality sleep, here are a couple of steps to consider:
Practice sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene is all those healthy habits that are conducive to quality sleep. Examples include exercising during the day, relaxing in the evening, avoiding stimulants, and cooling down your bedroom.
Seek professional help
There’s evidence sleep hygiene works only so far, i.e. in mild cases or short-term insomnia. If you have severe or chronic insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy and medication may be more effective in your case. Speaking to your primary care doctor is the first step to getting the help you need.
Treat sleep apnea
Some causes of sleep apnea can be treated with weight loss, surgery, and medication. Other cases require continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy or, alternatively, sleep apnea mouthpieces like thesetongue-stabilizing devices to get a good night’s sleep.
Webb WB, Agnew HW. Are we chronically sleep-deprived?Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society. 1975;6:p. 47.https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.3758/BF03333140.pdf
Sharma S, Kavuru M. Sleep and metabolism: an overview.Int J Endocrinol. 2010;2010:270832.doi:10.1155/2010/270832
Mesarwi O, Polak J, Jun J, Polotsky VY. Sleep disorders and the development of insulin resistance and obesity.Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2013;42(3):617-634.doi:10.1016/j.ecl.2013.05.001
Briançon-Marjollet A, Weiszenstein M, Henri M, Thomas A, Godin-Ribuot D, Polak J. The impact of sleep disorders on glucose metabolism: endocrine and molecular mechanisms.Diabetol Metab Syndr. 2015;7:25. Published 2015 Mar 24.doi:10.1186/s13098-015-0018-3
Irish LA, Kline CE, Gunn HE, Buysse DJ, Hall MH. The role of sleep hygiene in promoting public health: A review of empirical evidence.Sleep Med Rev. 2015;22:23-36.doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2014.10.001
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