Improving your sleep

You need sleep to lose weight! Sleeping is smart!

Sleep helps the body recover/rebuild/repair, and enhances the growth and revitalisation of immune and musculoskeletal systems. It slows down the ageing process and helps to balance hormones. A good night’s sleep boosts metabolism, can increase your energy, and improves your cognitive function.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to the body’s being less able to manage calories effectively. Even after just one night’s disrupted sleep, the hunger hormone ghrelin rises and the satiety hormone leptin decreases, thus adversely affecting your hunger control system. The stress hormone cortisol rises; this is bad for so many reasons, not least because it activates ‘bad’ gut bacteria which will lead to gastrointestinal problems. Research has demonstrated that, as a result of a deprived night’s sleep, we make poor food choices the next day. And as if this were not bad enough, if dieting, sleep-deprived individuals lost a higher percent of lean muscle mass.
When we are sleeping we produce human growth hormone (HGH), known as ‘youth hormone’. HGH helps defend muscle tissue from being lost and indeed helps build muscle. One night’s sleep deprivation is enough to make HGH disappear, and this effect will continue for a few more days. Apart from wanting to maintain muscle for general health and wellbeing, muscle burns fat!
If we are in a state of sleep debt, our bodies will produce an excess of the stress hormone cortisol. This breaks down muscle tissue and this new form of energy will be laid down as fat, particularly on our bellies. Another hormone, essential for good sleep, is melatonin; this requires total darkness to trigger secretion. Melatonin has a modulating effect on our stress hormones, and it helps boost our immune systems. It is also a potent fat-burning hormone. It has been found that, after just four nights’ poor sleep, individuals produced more insulin — a fat-storing hormone. Apart from contributing to making sleep-deprived people fatter, it may also be linked to the development of diabetes and high blood pressure.
Have I convinced you that you need to sleep well to lose weight? Here are some ways to ensure you get the best sleep possible:

Stick to a sleep schedule (going to bed and getting up) seven days a week. Sleeping longer on some days won’t compensate for late nights. Research shows we have our best sleep between 10pm and 2am, optimal for hormone balance and general recovery.
Have the right sunlight exposure. Try to get outside in natural sunlight for at least 30-60 minutes each day, preferably in the morning. If possible, wake up with the sun, maybe with the curtains open. Exposure to sunlight helps our bodies manufacture vitamin D — vital to our health. Turn down the lights before bedtime.
Don’t exercise too late in the day. At least 30 minutes a day, but not within 3 hours of bedtime. Better still, get up and go for your walk early in the day.
Avoid caffeine (coffee, colas, teas, and chocolate) and nicotine in the afternoon. The stimulant effect can last up to 8 hours and make sleep difficult. Overnight nicotine withdrawal can wake smokers up too early.
Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. They relax you but they interfere with good quality sleep (interrupting REM sleep) and tend to wake you in the middle of the night. Finish drinking any alcoholic beverage by 8pm.
Avoid large meals and beverages before bedtime (leave 3 hours). Indigestion, and the need to urinate, can interfere with sleep.
Check the side-effects of any medications. Some heart, blood pressure, or asthma medications, and some over-the-counter and herbal remedies, can delay or disrupt sleep patterns. Avoid taking them in the afternoon or evening if possible (check with your prescriber or pharmacist to see whether any drugs you’re taking can be taken early in the day).
Don’t take naps after 3 pm. Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but late afternoon or evening naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
Relax and unwind before bed. A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music, should be part of your bedtime pattern.
Meditation or breathing exercises may help to calm you and make falling asleep easier.
Take a hot bath or shower before bed. It may help you relax and slow down, so that you’re more ready to sleep. A bath with Epsom Salts added may be beneficial to relax muscles and aid sleep.
Check your sleeping environment. Your bedroom should not have noises, bright lights, or warm temperatures (you sleep better if the bedroom is on the cool side, between 60°F and 67°F). Your room should be dark; even a small amount of light can be detected by your skin. Any TV, phone, or computer in the bedroom should be off, and any clock should not be visible from your sleeping position. Screens should be switched off at least two hours before you want to sleep; replace screen time with something equally rewarding. Make sure your bed and pillows are comfortable.
Don’t lie in bed awake. If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed for more than 20 minutes or if you are starting to feel anxious or worried, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy.
Keep a plant in your bedroom. They remove toxins, fungus, and moulds.
Your bedroom should only be used for sleep and sex. Do not work in your bedroom.
Magnesium. This mineral helps the body and brain relax. It is also important for a great many other body functions. Be sure you eat foods containing it: brazil nuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, quinoa, green leafy vegetables, and dark chocolate. However many people are chronically magnesium-deficient and may therefore require a supplement. This may be via capsules, or applied topically to the skin
Beware of anxieties, emotional issues, and life problems which can affect your sleep; if you can address them, your sleep is likely to benefit.
And… If you continue to have disturbed or inadequate sleep, you may have a sleep disorder. Consult your doctor, who should be able to recommend a sleep specialist.

This checklist is adapted from advice in Your guide to healthy sleep (National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, 2011), and Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success (2016).