Sometimes our bodies have to scream at us before we will finally pay attention and make a change. Until we face up to that niggly little voice that tells us that our lifestyle habits aren’t serving us well.
I had one of those moments last week when, my back, with no warning, went into muscle spasm. If you’ve ever experienced a muscle spasm, common in the back or in the neck, you’ll know it’s painful and frustrating, and that the only cure is to wait it out until it magically recovers within a few days or a week.
I know why it happened. I’ve been burning the candle at both ends. Not partying, but working long hours, having a young family… I just haven’t been getting enough sleep. Cumulative exhaustion resulted in my body just being completely out of whack. Cue: back injury.I know that many of you are experiencing sleep deprivation in other ways. The fact is, no matter how motivated, dedicated to your work and family, or stoic you are in saying “I’m not tired”, we are human beings, and have a basic biological sleep requirement. When we dip below this, optimal functioning is compromised. The result: shoddy immunity, sick days, injuries, and an extra layer of padding that just won’t budge.
If your goal is weight loss, you are very likely to be wearing any sleep deficit all over your body.
So, how much sleep do we really need? And what can we do to get more of it?
Everybody’s sleep requirement is different, but most will be at their best with 7 hours of sleep a night.
If you sleep less than 6 hours two nights in a row, you are sleep deprived.
I know. It seems like an impossible dream to me too. If you have a new (or not so new) baby in the house who’s keeping you up all night you’re probably throwing a shoe at the screen. But here’s why better sleep is a worthy goal.
Why sleep matters
- It’s a hormone thing – The two hormones that are affected by sleep that have a lot to say about our waistline are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is the hunger gremlin, and tells us to eat eat eat. Leptin is the sensible hormone that tells us when it’s time to stop eating. When you’re not getting enough sleep, ghrelin will flourish while leptin is hindered. So, if you’re really tired and have a voracious appetite, take some comfort in the knowledge that you are actually biologically wired that way (and then go to bed).
- Metabolism out of whack – If you are not getting enough sleep, your metabolism is not able to function properly and this will get in the way of losing weight or keeping it off. We want to keep that metabolic fire burning with great food and lots of physical activity, and sleep deprivation is like throwing a bucket of water on the fire.
- Looking to food for energy – If you’ve ever ordered a giant bacon and egg roll with a huge coffee for breakfast, only to chase them down with endless carby snacks all day, you know what I’m talking about.
- Avoiding exercise – You’re absolutely exhausted after a crappy night’s sleep, so the last thing you feel like doing is hitting the gym. And that 5:30 am wake-up trying to get your butt out of bed is definitely going to be on snooze.
- A bodgy immune system – A lack of sleep will weaken your immunity against all those little bugs that lay you low when you’re burning the candle at both ends. Lots of sick days don’t just make you miserable and your boss grumpy, they also interrupt a regular training schedule necessary to beat the bulge.
- Your sleep credit card – Sleep debt is just like credit card debt. If you nip it in the bud early, it probably won’t get on top of you. But let it chronically pile up, and you will really start to pay the price.
How to get more sleep
- Sort out your health – First things first, you need to get on top of any health problems that may be impacting your sleep. Conditions such as sleep apnoea or thyroid issues can really impact your ability to have a restful night’s sleep. And I know it’s a cruel paradox, but losing excess weight is one of the best ways to improve your sleep quality!
- Same bedtime and wake-up time everyday – Personal trainers are terrible at this! This is of course a huge struggle for shift workers too. Going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day is important for setting your biological clock. It can be tough to do, especially if you’re tempted to catch up on sleep on the weekends. But if sleep quality is an issue for you, it is worth trying.
- Sunshine in the morning – As early as you can in the morning, get outside for your Vitamin D hit. Being in the sunshine in the morning helps set our circadian rhythm, letting our bodies know that now is the time to be awake.
- No caffeine in the afternoon – Make after 2pm a no caffeine zone. Caffeine too late in the day makes it harder to get to sleep and keeps us in the lighter phase of sleep. Herbal teas are great in the evening to help you wind down or if you need a hot drink after dinner.
- Exercise – Getting a workout in everyday, even if that means a half hour walk, will really help your sleep. Some experts will say the morning is the best time for exercise to aid sleep, but I say any time of the day that suits you is a great time to workout. A few stretches or yoga can also be a relaxing part of your bedtime routine.
- No alcohol close to bedtime – Booze may help send you off to sleep quickly, but it is disruptive to sleep later in the night as you begin to metabolise the alcohol. Anyone who has passed out after overimbibing, only to wake up a couple of hours later with a dry mouth will know what I’m talking about.
- No heavy meals before bed – Going to bed feeling full can not only cause heartburn, making it hard to nod off, the digestive demands of a big meal will keep you awake and reduce your sleep quality. I recommend a two hour break after eating before you hit the sack. Consider making lunch the biggest meal of the day and eating a lighter dinner.
- Only sex and sleep in bed – The bedroom is for two things only. It is not for working on your laptop, watching TV, or checking facebook on your phone. Making your bedroom a no screen zone will improve both your sleep and your love life!
- Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary – If there is a lot of light or noise pouring into your bedroom, your sleep quality will be affected, if it doesn’t wake you up altogether. Invest in window coverings that keep your room dark and quiet. Make sure the room is a comfortable temperature, too. A little cool with a few comfy layers on the bed is conducive to sleep.
- Stop sleep procrastination – I am a shocker with this one. We really need to prioritise sleep over less important activities. Do I really need to watch another hour of The Golf Show? Sometimes we are so exhausted that it can be hard to get off the couch and go to bed. Ridiculous! If you have finished your important tasks for the day and are tired, just go to bed.
I am refocusing on implementing these changes in my life. And also, I am looking at my priorities and whether I really need to be as busy as I am. What changes could you make to get more sleep and put your health first?