I work long enough days Monday-Thursday that I typically get to take a half day on Fridays. Yesterday I left the hospital at 1:30, changed into stretchy pants, washed my face, and promptly climbed into bed and slept for an hour. Then I still managed to sleep for 9.5 hours last night.

It seems I haven’t been getting enough sleep.

Health Effects of Not Getting Enough Sleep

I’m no sleep expert. In fact, I tend to think of myself as a rather poor sleeper. I’m definitely a light sleeper. But I do know that sleep affects our hormones, which in turn affects our metabolisms and weight. (In addition to many other things such as mood and disease risk).

Scientists have found that people who sleep less than 6 hours a night or more than 9 hours tend to gain twice as much weight as people who sleep 7-8 hours. In fact, a 2005 study found that people who sleep less than 7 hours per night, and go to bed after midnight, tend to be obese. Some experts even say every hour of sleep gotten before midnight is twice as beneficial as those hours after midnight.

The obesity could be due to the hormonal disruption of insufficient sleep – people have less appetite regulation, tend to eat more and make poorer food choices (we tend to crave simple processed carbohydrates when we’re sleep deprived), and therefore gain weight.

The obesity itself can also cause poor sleep. Aside from general discomfort (aching knees or backs), obesity has also been associated with sleep apnea – when our breathing actually stops throughout the night, sometimes up to 100 times a night.

Insufficient sleep has also been associated with more heart attacks and strokes and the increased weight likely leads to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. One study even found that women who sleep less than 7 hours per night (on average) have a 46% higher risk of cancer than those who sleep longer, despite being physically active.

Hormones and Sleep

Many of our hormones have daily cycles including cortisol, growth hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, melatonin, and testosterone. They’re produced at certain times of the day and their mechanisms affect how our bodies function as a result. For example, cortisol should be high first thing in the morning and low at night. Cortisol is commonly thought of as a stress hormone, if that pattern is reversed it makes it difficult to wake up and get out of bed in the morning and hard to unwind and relax enough to fall asleep at night.

Our sleep runs in cycles that last about 1.5 hours on average. There are 5 stages of our sleep cycle, ranging from light sleep to REM sleep. Growth hormone (GH) is secreted during deep sleep, or stages 3 and 4. When we sleep less, we’re limiting the number of cycles that we can move through. Fewer sleep cycles each night means less GH secretion. Why is growth hormone important? Well in general terms, GH increases protein synthesis and fat break down to repair and maintain our body, so it’s pretty important to get enough of it.

Ideas on How to Get Better Sleep

So inadequate sleep can impair our body’s ability to repair itself, to build muscle, to break down and use body fat for fuel, and might impact our thyroid function. It also affects women’s monthly cycles through it’s impact on luteinizing hormone and testosterone, not to even mention our mood and energy levels.

So how do we set ourselves up for better sleep? Well it’ll take some time spent working on new habits.

  • Use thick curtains to help block out exterior light and keep your bedroom as dark as possible. Put your phone/tablet/computer away – the light from the screen is stimulating. Dimming lights an hour or so before bedtime can help stimulate the secretion of melatonin, which helps signal the brain to start winding down.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine that you follow every night can also tell your brain it’s time to chill.
  • Start limiting your liquid intake a few hours before bed, waking up in the middle of the night with a full bladder is never fun.
  • On a related note, alcohol will limit your ability to reach those deep sleep stages associated with growth hormone production. Limit yourself to 1-2 drinks per night.
  • Don’t eat too close to bedtime. Food intake also decreases GH release.
  • If you lie down and your brain starts going a mile a minute, sit up and make a to-do list for the next day or just do a brain dump – write it all out and your brain will stop running through it all in an effort to remember.
  • Keep in mind that you’re not going to fall asleep the instant you lie down – factor in some transition time. 30 minutes is usually good.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule. Consider when you need to wake up and then count backward to figure out what time you need to be asleep to get a full 7.5-9 hours (remember, your sleep runs in approximately 1.5 hour cycles). Then add about 30 minutes to that to give yourself time to relax and settle into sleep. For example, if I plan to wake up at 5:00 I know I need to be asleep by 9:30. I try to be in bed by 9:00 but I usually sit down to journal and read for a few minutes by 8:30 to help myself wind down. My goal is to start putting my phone away in my bedroom at 8:30 too.

Also: sleep debt is cumulative. As you continue to go more and more nights without getting enough sleep, your hormones will get further and further out of whack and the consequences will just grow stronger. But you can chip away at your sleep debt by planning in nights when you can get to bed early to get some extra sleep.

Now go get cozy.



Too Little Sleep Tied to Increased Cancer Risk

Growth Hormone

Impact of Sleep Debt on Metabolic and Endocrine Function

Hey, we’re all unique. The information on this blog isn’t a substitute for individualized advice from a healthcare professional. Check with your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle.

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