Sleeping Our Way to Health



I don't know about you, but this week's time change hit me pretty hard. No one seems to do much protesting in the fall, when we gain an hour, but every spring when we have to give it back, my voice is added to the complainers. Why has Tim Eyman, who is always thinking up new things for us to vote on, not proposed getting rid of Daylight Savings in the Greater Seattle Area? For one thing, it's so often cloudy and rainy here that an hour more of daylight at the end of the day only gets noticed a couple times a week. The rest of the time it may as well be November. For another, the kids barely emerged from their daily walks to school in the semi-darkness, only to be plunged back in.

But I whine.

We will adjust. Eventually. Caffeine is our friend.

There are plenty of good reasons to take care of our sleep year-round, however.

  1. Sleep helps us maintain healthier eating habits. Just recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article on how poor sleep leads to more snacking the following day and an increased craving for fat. The University of Chicago researchers cited activation of the endocannabinoid system -- the same system, you'll note from the word parts, that marijuana tickles, causing the munchies. Sleep deprivation also messes with the hormones controlling hunger, reducing the one that dampens appetite and increasing the one that sends you to stand before an open fridge. How unfair is that? As a final insult to our systems, dieters who don't sleep enough lose more lean body mass and less of the fat mass that made them go on a diet in the first place. One tip from the researchers? Eating fiber is connected with better "slow-wave" sleep, while sugar leads to more restless rest. Instead of dessert, maybe we should all be having berries and shredded wheat before bed!
  2. Good sleep increases athletic performance. I can't remember which book I read it in, Higher, Faster, Stronger or The Sports Gene, but in the discussion of performance-enhancing drugs, the author pointed out that the best performance enhancement of all is entirely legal: a good night's sleep. Habitual good sleep could increase an athlete's performance by up to 10% -- a huge amount -- without the side effects of banned PEDs. (Side effects like developing the body of a cave troll or having to appear on talk shows to apologize to the disillusioned public.)
  3. Good sleep keeps our brains running at their best. You might have seen the recent news that women need about 20 minutes more sleep per day than men because women's brains are "more complex"? (A good excuse when you hit the snooze button, to your partner's irritation. Just mumble back, "I can't help it that I'm not as simple-minded as you are. All this brainpower doesn't just happen.") But complex or simple, the brain uses that sleep time "to recover and repair itself. During deep sleep, the cortex — the part of the brain responsible for thought, memory, language, and so on — disengages from the senses and goes into recovery mode," one of the article's sources explains.
  4. Good sleep helps fend off other ailments. Ailments like strokes, heart disease and diabetes! Something about not getting more than six hours per night raises risk factors of metabolic disorders, which you can read about here.

All well and good, you say, but what if you have insomnia? Then posts like these just increase your anxiety about not sleeping, causing more insomnia, which leads to you oversnacking and floundering in your marathon and get ting addled and your metabolism going wonky.

Everyone has their tips, which you may or may not find useless, but my personal favoritephoto (1) is to have a fairly dry book on the nightstand. A few pages in and I'm dozing off. Or I do my version of telling myself a bedtime story: I think over a (non-stressful) daydream or scenario that I've thought over dozens of times already. It's the narrative version of counting sheep, I think.

Any tricks work for you? My mom said my insomniac stepfather has taken to one square of marijuana-infused dark chocolate two hours before bedtime, and now he "sleeps like a baby for eight hours." Any volunteer guinea pigs want to verify her findings? Here's wishing you all a good night's sleep!