By Johanna Burani, MS, RD, CDE
We all know what it is like to go through the day feeling tired. We do our work throughout the day and can’t wait for the day to end. If we get a good night of sleep, we wake up rested and are ready to start all over again. We have the energy we need all day long. But what if we don’t get enough sleep? What if we have many nights when we are very tired, fall asleep for a short time then wake up and cannot fall back to sleep?
More than 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep loss. Women have more of a problem falling asleep and staying asleep than men. More than 2 million children have sleep disorders and even more just don’t get enough sleep on many nights. Most adults need between 7–9 hours of sleep every night. When we don’t get enough sleep night after night, we build up a large sleep debt that is hard to pay back. Then we are tired all the time and don’t have enough energy.
WHY WE NEED TO SLEEP
First, the body needs some “time off” to rest and take care of itself. Sleep gives the body a chance to slow down its workload and rest different parts, such as the brain, heart, muscles and the organs that digest our food all day long. The body doesn’t shut off when we sleep, it just slows down. This allows our body parts to relax for seven, eight or nine hours. A tired body doesn’t work as well as a rested one, and chronic lack of sleep can cause health problems.
SLEEP AND DIABETES
It is very important to get enough sleep if you have diabetes or prediabetes. If you are tired, your body tries to get energy by eating more, which can raise the glucose level in the blood. Gaining weight makes it harder to have good diabetes control. The body needs insulin to keep its glucose level from getting too high. If your pancreas is unable to make enough insulin, your glucose level will climb higher. Lack of sleep also makes the muscle cells less likely to take in glucose from the bloodstream.
Good diabetes control will help you sleep better. You will not need to go to the bathroom many times during the night if your blood glucose numbers are in a healthy range. You will sleep better and feel more rested in the morning.
GET ENOUGH SLEEP
No matter what the age is, the body tells us when it needs sleep. We are cranky and lack energy. We have a hard time doing work. And we may start to gain weight if we don’t sleep enough.
If you need an alarm clock to wake up each morning, you may not be getting enough sleep.
SLEEP AND WEIGHT GAIN
Some studies show that we gain weight more easily when we don’t sleep enough. That’s because sleep affects some important hormones in the body.
Lack of sleep affects the part of the brain that controls hunger. It is affected by two hormones, called ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin (the “gimme more” hormone) tells the brain when we are hungry. When ghrelin levels in the stomach are high, the brain triggers us to eat more food. Leptin (the “leave me alone” hormone) tells the brain that we feel full. When leptin levels, which come out of fat cells, are high, the brain senses that the body is full and doesn’t need more food, so we don’t want to eat.
When we don’t sleep enough, our ghrelin levels go up and our leptin levels go down. This means that when we eat after a poor night of sleep, we don’t feel full and keep on eating. We aren’t hungry, but our tired body tells our brain that we are. If we lack sleep night after night and eat more while awake, we can gain weight over time.
Another hormone that changes with too little sleep is growth hormone. That hormone helps control how much fat we burn and how fast we increase our muscle mass. Growth hormone is released while we sleep. The less we sleep, the less growth hormone there is in the body. That leads to weight gain because we burn less fat. Finally, the lack of sleep will affect another hormone, cortisol. Cortisol encourages the body to store fat, especially in the belly area.
These hormones send unhealthy messages to the brain that lead us to eat more food when we are tired. This is a big problem because the fast-paced American lifestyle seems to promote less sleep and those who are hungry can usually find food to eat at any hour.
WHEN TO SEE YOUR DOCTOR
If you are worried about your poor sleeping habits or think you sleep enough but are always tired, speak to your doctor. With the right care, you may feel much better and also find that the weight you have been trying to lose is finally coming off—in your sleep.