Getting enough sleep is key to overall health and wellness.  Lack of it can weaken your immune system and negatively impact proper body functioning.  Sleep is essential because it is during this time that the body is repairing and healing itself.  Sleep studies show that the average adult needs approximately 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Stress, exercise, environment, and dietary habits can all affect our sleep patterns.

How does sleep (or lack of) affect our eating decisions?

Sleep deprivation may change the availability of the hormones that are in charge of hunger.  Studies have shown that people who slept fewer hours had higher levels of ghrelin (an enzyme produced by stomach lining cells that stimulates appetite).  This hormonal imbalance may lead to poor food choices, such as foods high in sugar, fats, and simple carbohydrates.

How does a stressful night’s sleep affect our food cravings the next day?

Poor quality of sleep can also change and affect these hormones in your body.  Sleep apnea, for example, is a disorder where a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. Although not life-threatening, it can make a person feel tired even though they slept for 8 hours.  When we feel fatigued, we tend to make poor meal and/or snack choices.

Regarding sleep deprivation and brain impairment, is it just “bad judgment” that causes us to choose bad foods?

Stress, environment, and lack of exercise can also alter the hormone cortisol, which is produced by our adrenal glands (located above the kidneys).  Cortisol regulates your sleep-wake cycle and when levels of this hormone are elevated for a prolonged period of time (such as with chronic stress), we may experience fatigue, salt cravings, and abdominal weight gain.   People who are awake more hours tend to eat more because of the sheer hours they’re awake.  Once again, this often times leads to poor meal choices due to fatigue from lack of sleep.  People tend to gravitate towards easy, quick snacks and fast food when they feel exhausted.

How can we help normalize cortisol levels?

One way is to practice stress management techniques like guided imagery, visualization, meditation, and even diaphragmatic breathing, which can help our bodies counteract the negative effects of stress on a daily basis.  The lower the stress levels, the more normalized cortisol levels become.

How does exercise help with stress and sleep?

To put it simply, the more sedentary we are, the less efficiently we respond to stress.  Exercise can help you sleep sounder and longer and feel more refreshed during the day.  Regular exercise improves heart health and blood pressure, builds bone and muscle, helps combat stress and muscle tension, and can even improve mood.

How does environment play a role in our sleep?

Our bedroom environment has a significant influence on quality and quantity of sleep.  Certain variables combine to make up the sleep environment, including light, noise, and temperature.  Be aware of factors in your sleep environment that help you to feel relaxed and eliminate those that may cause stress or distraction.

In summary, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, creating a hospitable sleep environment, and practicing some form of stress management each day will influence the quality and quantity of sleep we obtain.  We’ve heard this before, but it’s always worth mentioning again.