Skimp on sleep, and your body will make you regret it. Here are tips for a healthful sleep cycle.
Do you feel like hibernating this time of year, or do you find yourself skimping on sleep even when it’s dark by 4 p.m.? While it’s not unusual to voluntarily push off bedtime due to work demands, more often than not it’s leisure pursuits — social media, a favorite show, a good book, Words With Friends — that keep us up late.
Time and time again, when I have a patient who chronically goes to bed late, it’s because they feel that the hours between 9 p.m. and midnight are their only “me time.” But postponing bedtime — especially when you have a firm morning wake-up time — creates a sleep deficit that may increase your risk of future health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The four pillars of health and well-being are nutritious food, regular movement, stress management and getting enough quality sleep. No matter how well you eat and how regularly you exercise, chronically skimping on sleep will hurt you. Research has shown that lack of sleep interferes with our hormone cycles — including the hormones that regulate appetite and stress. One week of mild sleep restriction increases levels of inflammation in the body and impairs brain function, especially the parts related to learning and memory. Weekend catch-up sleep helps — but not with the brain-function part, and some research suggests those impairments may add up over time. Plus, daytime sleepiness makes it harder to commit to regular exercise or make nutritious food choices, causing additional hits to your health.
We have two sources of energy. Sleep is one; food is the other. Those two sources are not interchangeable — extra sleep doesn’t let you eat less, and food doesn’t make up for fatigue caused by lack of sleep. That doesn’t stop us from trying, of course. Feel an energy dip in the afternoon and have the urge to eat something sweet or rich in carbohydrates? Question whether food energy is what your body is really crying out for — especially if you’re not particularly hungry at the moment.
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If you like to grab coffee with that cookie for your afternoon pick-me-up, be careful. Too much coffee — or other sources of caffeine — will make it harder for you to sleep well that night. It’s a vicious cycle. Avoid caffeine for at least four to six hours before bed, knowing that personal tolerance varies — some people need to cut it off at noon to prevent it from impacting sleep.
No matter how many hours you’re logging in bed, are those hours of sleep quality hours? Two additional food and beverage habits that can get in the way of quality sleep include alcohol and late-night snacking. While alcohol has a sedating effect initially, it starts to act as a stimulant after a few hours, so you may wake up more frequently. Keep your daily intake moderate and avoid imbibing within three hours of bedtime.
Avoiding eating late in the evening is important for anyone who is prone to acid reflux, but even if you’re not, doing serious digesting when you should be sleeping can make your sleep less restful and can throw off your circadian rhythms. Ideally, eat dinner at least three hours before bed, but if you must dine late, keep it light. Do you find that when you stay up late you start to get hungry again? Take that as a cue to just go to bed. And maybe start thinking of a good night’s sleep as the ultimate, most luxurious “me time.”