By J. Ron Eaker, M.D.

(Second in a series of Healthy Habits for Moms)

If you were not raised in the jungles of Sumatra by wolves, chances are you have heard the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  So as to not raise any unnecessary childhood traumas, I will cut to the sound that has echoed through the ages…”It was not too hot and not too cold, but just right.”  This age old aphorism applies to many things such as watching Game of Thrones and eating banana bread, but nowhere is the aphorism more relevant than in the dreamy realm of sleep.

Achieving the fairy-tale ideal of balance is vital when we view sleep from a health perspective.  Notwithstanding the sheer joy of blissful rest, adequate sleep is a habit worth cultivating for many reasons.

Being overweight in today’s Western society is about as common as scandals in Congress.  One factor leading to our prominent portliness is too little sleep.  Studies have shown that individuals who get less than 5 hours of sleep a night stand a 30% increased chance of being overweight.  Push that to 5-6 hours and that goes to 20% but even there a full 57% are more likely to be obese.  So you chronic insomniacs may be asking, “What is the ideal number of hours to slumber and not put on the pounds?” Again, scientists who study these things have decided that between 7-8 hours of quality sleep gives the best health results.

Why does sleep influence weight?  There are actually a number of reasons.  Those who sleep less than 6 hours a night have a higher level of a dastardly hormone called ghrelin.  This little demon stimulates appetite and decreases energy expenditure, thus leading to love handles.  In addition, your adrenal glands spew out more cortisol which tells your fat cells to expand and set up shop around your waist. 

Before you run off screaming that you are doomed to being overweight because you don’t sleep, remember that individuals, like snowflakes, are unique.  Sleep requirements vary from person to person as it relates to health.  All of us have read about famous people who reported that they needed limited sleep and could still perform at optimal levels.  Martha Stewart, for example, has claimed for years she only got 4-5 hours of sleep a night.  I wonder if that was because of frequent cell checks while in prison?  Anyway, my point is that each individual needs to access many factors, including sleep, as it relates to something as complex as weight gain.

There are also researchers that note that our immune system suffers with a dirge of sleep time. Ever wonder why you tend to get more colds when you are not rested? It may not be that you spend your entire day in the presence of little germ factories (i.e. children) but the fact that you have flummoxed your white blood cells by staying up too late watching Jimmy Kimmell.

Not surprisingly, shift workers are at great risk for a variety of health problems because of disrupted sleep patterns.  Those who rotate shifts seem to be most vulnerable because they are constantly trying to establish a pattern and are constantly thwarted by bosses giving them 2 night shifts in the middle of the week.  Again, some of the most challenging clients in weight loss programs are those who work odd hours and have messed up sleep.

Then there is the dilemma of sleep apnea or as some call it “the mother of all snoring.” This highly disturbing and disruptive cycle of stopping breathing, waking up and doing this sometimes more than 30 times a night is either a result of being overweight or can actually be a reason for becoming overweight.  Either way, it totally screws up the sleep cycle leaving you tired, irritable and downright not easy to get along with the next day.

With all this good news, is there any hope for getting better sleep if you need to? Here are some simple but effective suggestions for successful slumber straight from the National Sleep Foundation:

1. Stick to a sleep schedule.

2. Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual.

3. Avoid naps, especially in the afternoon.

4. Exercise daily.

5. Control your sleep environment.

6. Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillow.

7. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening.

8. If you can’t sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired.

9. If you’re still having trouble sleeping, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor or to find a sleep professional.

This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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