By: Michelle Arington
According to a 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll, 57% of women compared to 51% of men experience insomnia at least 3 out of 7 nights a week. From demanding careers, kids, family and social events, to anxiety, depression, chronic pain and hormonal fluctuations, it is increasingly difficult to get the recommended 7 ½- 8 hours of sleep a night. While the poll suggests women are getting a mere average of 6 ½ hours a night, I know many of my clients and friends are getting even less than average, often reporting a mere 5-6 hours of non-restful, interrupted sleep.
Chronic lack of sleep over time can eventually lead to mood disorders, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and early mortality.
While the obvious benefits of sleep are well documented and personally experienced, such as improved memory, more energy, and sharper concentration, many people don’t realize that improving the quality and length of their sleep can also impact their ability to maintain a healthy weight and maybe even help them lose weight.
When you don't sleep well, it is easy to lose the motivation and desire to exercise. But many women cut their short night’s sleep even shorter. They push themselves to wake up at 4:30 am to run or workout, only to sometimes find themselves gaining weight, rather than losing, leading to frustration and fatigue. It is also known that chronic lack of sleep affects two very important hormones, Ghrelin and Leptin. Ghrelin triggers hunger and Leptin signals the brain that we are full. When you cheat yourself from sleep, your Ghrelin levels increase and your Leptin levels decrease, leading us to eat more and crave sugar and fat for energy.
Your habits during the day determine how well you sleep at night and how efficiently you lose weight. Here are my favorite strategies to help you have a more restful night's sleep, so you can have the energy you need to fuel your day and your workouts, and keep your hormones and weight in balance.
#1. Be aware of your stress: High amounts of daily stress can affect the quality of your sleep at night. As a mind-body health coach, I work with my clients to help them develop holistic strategies to not only effectively manage their weight, but also their stress. Stress can sabotage your weight-loss goals by raising your cortisol levels and sparking cravings for caffeine, alcohol and sugar.
The first step in stress management is simply to become aware of your stress level throughout the day. If you have a habit of going full speed ahead all day long without realizing your teeth are clenched, your shoulders are tense and you’re holding your breath, take a step back. A five-minute breath break can do wonders for calming down a racing mind and reducing the impact of stress on your body. Allow your breath to rise and fall from your belly and slowly begin to increase the length of your exhales. Practice this anytime you notice you’re not breathing to reset your internal response to stress.
#2. Change your perspective: A very interesting study suggests that simply changing our minds about stress can change the way we are affected by stress. Not only does stress increase cortisol and adrenalin, but many people don’t realize that oxytocin, also a stress hormone, is released. Oxytocin protects the heart from stress, relaxes blood vessels, decreases inflammation and generates feelings of warmth and compassion. It also drives us to seek out help and connection with others, helping to decrease feelings of isolation and depression. This study showed that people who chose to view their stress response as a health challenge rather than detrimental to their health, had the lowest risk of premature death. They also had healthier hearts and social lives than those who viewed their stress response as having a negative impact on their health. When you perceive stress as a healthy challenge, your body, heart and mind believe you and you become more resilient to stress.
#3. Eat well to sleep well: A balanced diet, with a reasonable amount of protein and lots of colorful fruits and veggies supplies the body with adequate nutrition to feel energetic and alive. Reduce processed sugar and don’t skip the fat. Healthy fats aid in the absorption of minerals, reduce inflammation and protect the brain from anxiety and depression. Eat a breakfast high in fiber and protein, allow lunch to be your largest meal and try not to eat your last meal late at night. If you do feel hungry before bedtime, a small protein snack with healthy fat can help you feel satiated and stave of sleep-depriving hunger without sabotaging your weight-loss goals.
#4. Exercise: In the beginning, when you are feeling sleep-deprived and low on energy, it can feel impossible to exercise during the day. But even 15-20 minutes of moderate exercise can help you decrease harmful stress hormones, reduce muscle tension and help you feel sleepy when it’s time to turn in. Do what you love and do it every day. Whether it’s Yoga, walking, biking, running or dancing, commit to the time and watch your sleep and your energy improve. Over time, you may discover you have the energy you need to increase the amount of time you exercise without sacrificing sleep.
#5. Reduce caffeine: Caffeine remains in your system for up to eight hours. While it may be tempting to brew that extra cup of coffee to help you get through that afternoon slump, consider how this may be affecting your sleep at night. Instead, take a quick, brisk walk, close your eyes and take several deep breaths, or eat a high protein snack with a little bit of fruit to maintain blood-sugar levels and boost your energy throughout the day.
#6. Let go of the booze: I know this is a hard one to grasp. Many women struggling with insomnia often rely on a couple of glasses of wine or a cocktail or two in the evening to help them relax and unwind from a stressful day. The initial sedating effects of alcohol may appear to help you fall asleep faster, but in reality, alcohol increases your chance of developing a sleep disorder by disrupting the stages and duration of sleep states and increasing your risk of sleep apnea. Alcohol alters the overall length of time of sleep by disrupting the second half of your sleep cycle, increasing wakefulness and anxiety and decreasing your ability to fall back into a sound, restful sleep. Studies show that moderate alcohol consumption as much as 6 hours before bedtime can be enough to disrupt sleep at night. Add to this the added calories and sugar in alcohol, you can be sure your weight-loss will come to a grinding halt. Try switching to chamomile tea or turmeric milk as healthy and effective alternatives to your evening nightcap and watch the length and quality of your sleep improve.
#7. Create a bedtime ritual: Turn off the computer, turn down the lights, light some candles, turn on some soothing music or simply enjoy the silence. Decrease the amount of mental and visual stimulation at night, and instead create a calming ritual to prepare your body and mind for a healthy night’s sleep. Commit to the same bedtime every night and the same waking hour in the morning. Gentle stretching or Yoga, prayer or mindfulness meditation, journaling your thoughts and tomorrow’s to-do list, and soaking in a warm Epsom Salts bath with essential oils like lavender or rose, are some simple yet effective soul-soothing habits to cultivate at night.
#8. Practice progressive relaxation: Once you are lying in bed, then what? Maybe you feel a little restless and notice some tension left in your body. A simple progressive relaxation technique can help you let go and fall into deep sleep. Beginning with your feet, breathe deeply into your belly as you tense and tighten your muscles, then exhale smoothly and slowly as you soften and release your muscles. Move through each part of the body, taking as much time as you like, until you reach your face. To finish, tense your entire body from head to toes and with a long smooth exhale, let it all go.
#9. Supplemental sleep-aids: Sometimes it takes a little extra help to get us through the night. Supplements such as magnesium, melatonin, GABA and L- Tryptophan can be helpful when you are trying to break the cycle of insomnia. Magnesium is a mineral that is a powerful muscle and nervous system relaxer. A deficiency in this mineral can lead to restless sleep, muscle tension, heart palpitations and anxiety. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep cycles. Taken in small amounts, it can help some women fall asleep easier and stay asleep longer. GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps stop brain over-activity, reduces anxiety and induces good quality of sleep without creating sleepiness during the day. L-Tryptophan is an amino acid that is converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin when it reaches the brain. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite and sleep. Low levels of serotonin can cause depression. Educate yourself and ask your doctor or alternative health care practitioner before taking any supplement you are unfamiliar with.
#10. Be patient: As with starting anything new, it takes practice. Be patient with yourself as you let go of old habits that do not serve your intention to have a restful night’s sleep and replace them with new healthy, habits. It takes time to rewire the brain and train the body. Consistency will be its own reward when you reach your weight-loss goals without sacrificing sleep. Forgive yourself for restless nights and don’t give up.