Why you should sleep more to eat less.
Do you feel powerless in front of a chocolate chip cookie or a bag of salt and vinegar chips? A lot of people spend energy trying to resist their favorite treats, only to find themselves defeated and chewing away on the forbidden temptations before the day is done. Once their taste buds are done singing hallelujah, the familiar guilt returns with yet another round of resolve that this was their last lapse… until the next one.
If this scenario resembles your relationship with food, do not despair. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but you’ll have to stop looking around the food department to see it. If food is your problem, then it’s not your solution.
Cravings may be a symptom, caused by something else that’s out of balance in your body. Over years of studying, teaching and coaching sound health habits, I have had countless conversations with health seekers and wellness professionals alike. I have found that our sleep, food, mood and exercise habits are better understood—and managed—when looked at as a whole, rather than as separate entities. In the case of food cravings, a very common cause behind that symptom is often sleep deprivation.
More than two out of three American adults are mildly to severely sleep deprived, a sneaky condition with a lot worse consequences than we realize. Chronic sleep loss puts you at greater risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and it can cause you to gain weight. Even moderate sleep deprivation impairs attention, alertness, concentration, and reasoning, thus leading to weak problem solving, an absent memory and poor judgment.
When I hear someone brag about how little sleep they get, I don’t hear the intended “I’m so busy, needed, important.” What I hear instead is “I am temporarily and reversibly mentally impaired, but my judgment is too clouded to realize it.”
In addition, since the brain and body use sleep time to produce and balance our supply of numerous and important biochemicals, cutting back on sleep is sure to leave us feeling like something’s not right.
And for good reasons: Short sleepers tend to have the wrong supplies of ghrelin and leptin. These two hormones tell you “I’m hungry” (ghrelin) and “I’m satisfied” (leptin), and if they’re out of whack, they make you eat more than you really need. Not enough sleep also raises our cortisol levels, a hormone that generates high-sugar, high-fat and/or high-salt food cravings. To make things worse, people who don’t sleep a full night also have low serotonin, a biochemical that suppress cravings and helps us feel more at peace, thus reducing emotional eating.
With increased hunger, worse cravings and less ability to regulate our response to food, it’s no wonder that the chocolate bar that’s been screaming your name since morning finally gets the best of you before the day is done.
It’s as if your body was telling you to replace the energy it didn’t get through sleep via the next best source it knows: food. That physiological drive is very hard to resist, and beating yourself up for giving in will only make things worse by increasing cortisol and reducing serotonin further.
So the question becomes, what can you do about it? Of course, the easy answer is to get the recommended 7 to 8½ hours of sleep daily—unless you are recovering from an illness, a burnout or a hangover, in which case you may need more. But what about the days when you just can’t make it to bed on time, or when your best attempts to get sufficient sleep amount to nothing but additional tossing and turning?
Learn to reinterpret that craving as your body’s way of telling you it needs a little serotonin boost, or that you’d benefit from reducing excess cortisol. Ways to rebalance these biochemicals naturally and without food include going for a walk or engaging in other forms of exercise, stepping out in the sun, taking a nap, meditating, and getting a massage. Stuck in a meeting all day? Focusing on your wins and on the respect you receive from others is an effective way to boost serotonin at work, says Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD Smiling and laughing can also boost serotonin levels.
All these activities will not only balance your biochemical activity, but the diversion they provide will further assist you in resisting the forbidden temptations.
- The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep