“Eat less, move more.” It’s a familiar admonishment to anyone who has ever struggled with his or her weight. The underpinning of all politically correct health initiatives, this ubiquitous mantra echoes from every corner of the modern medical establishment, the fitness industry and, tragically, even from some holistic and alternative health practitioners.
While there’s no arguing with the fact that the majority of Americans would benefit from “moving more,” modern science throws the “eat less” half of the equation into disgrace. At best, it is unspecific to the point of being useless. At worst, it overlooks everything we know about the importance of what you eat outweighing the value of counting calories.
Just as importantly, this common advice overlooks a key factor in keeping your weight under control: sleep.
Living as we do in culture saturated by the lie that busy-ness is a virtue and sleep deprivation is a badge of honor, it can be challenging to accept that sleep is not a luxury but an essential part of building and maintaining good health. Yet research is clear: your body needs sleep to detox, destress, and heal.
Consistently getting too little sleep has been proven to increase your risk of:
- Insulin resistance, blood sugar imbalances, and diabetes.
- Cardiovascular disease.
- Mood disorders.
- A weakened immune system.
- Accidents and injury.
- Substance abuse.
- Interpersonal and inter-relational conflict.
The impacts of missing out of sleep rack up much more quickly than most people realize. For every hour of sleep you skip, you lose two or more hours of focus and productivity the next day. Worse, your performance in critical tasks such as driving drops as steeply as if you’d been drinking.
A recent study by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health, for example, found that after being awake for as little as 17 hours, the average driver has an alertness level equivalent to that of a drinker with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 percent, an intoxication level high enough to get a driver legally cited for impaired driving. At 24 hours without sleep, drivers’ level of impairment is so high they are more dangerous than if they slid behind the wheel completely intoxicated.
(In an effort to raise awareness of these dangers, one company has even created wearable bands that measure your vitals and display your BAC equivalent in hopes the comparison will encourage drivers to make safer, smarter choices.)
Like your ability to drive, your body’s ability to detoxify, destress, and heal decreases dramatically after missing only a few hours of sleep. The more chronic and severe your sleep deprivation, the higher your risk of serious health consequences.
The biological mechanisms behind this are varied and complex, but a simplified overview looks like this:
- Sleep plays a key role in regulating hormones. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces too much grehlin, a “hunger hormone,” and not enough leptin, a hormone essential to achieving that “full” feeling that makes you stop eating.
- Bodily stress associated with insufficient sleep keeps your cortisol levels high, which encourages your body to make and store fat. It can also increase cravings for sugary and high-carbohydrate foods which unbalance your blood sugar, increase metabolic stress, and lead to even more weight gain!
- Your body relies on overnight detoxification cycles to scrub your system and “dump” toxins and waste products. Insufficient sleep prevents, interrupts, or delays these crucial processes. Unable to eliminate toxins, your body “stashes” them in fat deposits that it then stubbornly resists letting you burn off until you have restocked on the sleep and nutrients you need to safely remove those toxins from your body.
As you might guess, all the “eating less and exercising more” in world won’t change these internal dynamics. In fact, the added stress of getting inadequate nutrition and putting your overtired body through strenuous workouts can actually make things worse!
So if you struggle with stubborn weight, before you skip another meal or pound out another mile on the treadmill, ask yourself how much sleep you got last night, and the night before that. If the answer is “not enough,” consider a new approach. Turn off your phone, shut down your computer, and give yourself permission to go to bed early tonight. Give your body the rest that it needs and you may find yourself well on your way to painlessly shedding that extra weight – and a host of other health benefits, besides.