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The Health Benefits of Sleep

Did you sleep well last night, or the night before that?  Are you getting  7-8 hours of quality sleep a night?  Do you find yourself tossing and turning night after night, and when you finally do fall asleep, you’re awakened by the sound of a blaring alarm clock even more tired than when you went to bed?  Ugh.  Not fun.

Perhaps you’re one of those people that likes to brag about how well you function on only a few hours of sleep?  Not getting enough sleep is nothing you want to brag about.

Many people look towards a sleep aid from their doctor, or take an OTC product (such as Tylenol PM®) for relief from sleeplessness but more often than not, many of these products can leave you feeling lethargic and in a fog the next day that find you taking stimulants to help get you through the day, which then only contribute to another sleepless night, which can become a viscous cycle.

Sleep loss can impact your health and should be taken seriously.

The importance of ZZZZ’z

Many people overlook how important getting a good night’s sleep really is.  Sleep is such an important topic that even the Huffington Post devoted an entire section to Sleep

Sleep Loss and Weight Gain

Getting 7-8 hours a night of restful sleep is vital to your health.  Let’s start with the number one thing most people are concerned with – weight loss.  Recent studies have shown that sleep loss affects fat loss.  When dieters get a good night’s sleep, more than half of the weight they lost was fat compared to losing only one fourth of fat loss when they cut back on sleep.

Lack of sleep also increases your appetite and research has found that chronic insomnia affects two of your hormones, Ghrelin and Leptiin.  According to researchers at UCLA, “Sleep loss leads to increased ghrelin and decreased leptin, a “double whammy” that stimulates appetite”.

Weight Gain and Sleep Apnea

Many people who are overweight suffer from sleep apnea.  What is sleep apnea?  WebMd best explains it “Sleep apnea briefly stops your breathing throughout the night. Each interruption wakes you for a moment, but you may not be aware of it. The result: you’re sleep-deprived despite spending eight hours in bed.”   WebMd recommends the following  for sleep apnea. “ Lose weight if you’re overweight, quit smoking, and sleep with a CPAP device to help keep airway passages open at night.”

Sleep Loss, Stress and Cortisol

Not getting enough sleep can cause irritability, mood swings and increase stress levels, particularly the hormone cortisol which has also been associated with weight gain.  Stress is one of the leading causes of insomnia. This becomes a vicious cycle.  The less sleep you get, the more your stress levels increase as does your secretion of cortisol.  Chronically elevated levels of cortisol are bad for our bodies and minds as well as our ability to sleep.

“When you are subjected to stress, particularly chronic stress, your body releases cortisol much more frequently than it should.  This gets ugly when cortisol is not only high in the morning (as it should be naturally), but all day long, even at bedtime.  Abnormally elevated cortisol begins to disturb sleep, which makes us more prone to daily stress, which raises cortisol.  The consequences of this downward spiral include suppressed immune function, chronically elevated blood sugar levels, decreased insulin sensitivity, impaired ability to form long-term memory, decreased sex drive and libido” ~ Robb Wolff – The Paleo Solution

Stress is a topic I recently wrote about in my article Societal Stress. There are many ways to help reduce or alleviate stress and reducing stress is vital to your health.

Sleep Loss and Your Immune System

Chronic lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your immune system.  Our immune system is designed to protect us from cold, flu and other illnesses and how well we fight them (i.e, the duration of said cold, flu, etc.).  Chronic sleep loss can make us more susceptible to nasty little buggers.

According to Diwakar Balachandran, MD, director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas, “ Studies have shown that people who are sleep deprived also get less protection from flu vaccines than those who are getting adequate sleep”.

Science Daily has also reported on lack of sleep and your immune system and in one article, they talk about how loss of sleep (even 1 night) increases inflammation in the body and trust me, inflammation is not something you want as it can lead to all sorts of unpleasant health issues, but that’s a whole other story.

Loss of sleep, and even part of one night,  produces inflammation that damages tissue.   Findings by a research team at the UCLA Cousins Center suggests a good night’s sleep can ease the risk of both heart disease and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Sleep Robbers:  Caffeine, Sugar and other Stimulants

I’m no different than most people and I admit, I need my morning coffee to get my day going.  I also know to stay away from caffeinated beverages after a certain time of the day or I will end up spending the night staring at the ceiling which I definitely don’t want.

Most people tend to have an energy crash around 3:00 p.m. and reach for a caffeinated beverage that may be sugar laden, or have a sugary treat to go with their mid- afternoon caffeine.  Sure, this is an instant pick me up, but unfortunately, when the effects of your afternoon pick me up wear off, you’re left feeling more tired than you did at 3:00 p.m. and you’re also consuming unhealthy calories that lead to weight gain.   For those of you who may be caffeine sensitive, although you may be feeling tired, the effects can linger on for hours creating a sleepless night so you may want to avoid caffeinated beverages late afternoon, early evening.

Looking for a natural afternoon pick me up?  Have a piece of fruit with a healthy fat such as almonds, walnuts or natural nut butter along with a low fat cottage cheese or plain Greek Yogurt.  Not only will this help control cravings for junk and sugar, you will get a natural energy boost that will sustain you for a longer period of time without spiking insulin levels.

While we’re on this subject, how can I NOT mention energy drinks.  They’re gaining in popularity and obviously, contain caffeine.

Some sports supplements and weight loss products contain caffeine.  If you are using a weight loss supplement and are taking it late in the day, you may want to make sure you use the product earlier in the day or stop using it altogether and see if your sleep improves.  If you hit the gym after work and are using a pre-workout supplement, you may want to check the label to see if the product does contain caffeine.

Eating late at night

Eating late at night and going to bed shortly thereafter can cause a sleepless night.  Your body has to work to digest foods.  Also, the types of foods you eat prior to bed time can give you less than quality sleep.  Most people find themselves reaching for junk snacks late at night (candy, cookies, pretzels, chips, cakes, pies, etc.) that elevate blood sugar levels giving you an energy boost and add extra unwanted pounds.

Best bet is to avoid eating large meals late at night and also avoid processed foods and sugary snacks.  However, if you do find that you have to have something (and trust me folks, I’ve been there) reach for some low fat cottage cheese, plain Greek Yogurt or, have some natural nut butter (almond, cashew or peanut) with some celery sticks or an apple.

Getting your zzzzz’s naturally

Now that you have an idea of how sleep loss affects your health, (and trust me, this is just scratching the surface), put down the Ambien® and let’s talk about some natural ways of getting some good, quality, sleep.  I’m not saying this is the cure all, but these methods are a good place to start that can do more for your health than the methods you’re probably trying (or not trying).

Exercise Your Way to Better Sleep

Without a doubt, the best natural “prescription” for almost anything that ails you with the best side effects is exercise.  In a recent study, a group of women aged 55 and older with insomnia were divided into two test groups.  Test group one participated in physical activity four times a week while the other group participated in recreational or educational activities.  The outcome of the study? The people in the exercise group did much better than the non-exercise group when it came to their sleep. Exercise not only improved their sleep quality but they also reported feeling better, their moods improved, and had more energy during the day.

One of the other benefits of exercise is that it will help you shed unwanted pounds, and helps reduce stress, so if stress is what’s keeping you up at night, hit the iron!


Meditation is a great way to relax, reduce stress , calm the mind and the body and get you prepared for some quality shut-eye.


There are some wonderful self-hypnosis recordings available to help reduce stress or improve sleep quality.

What about Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone your body produces to help it regulate your sleep-wake cycles. I have tried Melatonin in the past and have found that while it did help me fall asleep, I did not sleep through the entire night.  Some people have had great success with it while others, not so much.

Living a healthy lifestyle

I know the lifestyle I lead is not the “norm”, although it should be.  For many years, I have been consistent about getting enough exercise, eating a balanced diet that is rich in nutrients, have kept my stress levels low to almost non-existent (via exercise and keeping a positive mindset), and consistently get 7-8 hours of quality non-interrupted sleep.  I feel great, have lots of energy, am happy, always in a great mood.  What can I say? Mind and body are connected.  Treat your body like the precious temple it is and it will take care of you.

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