Weight control, stronger heart health linked to better sleep

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A good night’s sleep is crucial for human health, but more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. Austin Regional Clinic Family Medicine physician Krupaben C. Patel, MD defines a good night’s sleep in adults as seven to nine hours of deep sleep without interruption, and waking up feeling refreshed and energetic.

Sleep deprivation and sleeping too much are both directly linked to health issues, so a proper sleep schedule is one of the best ways to ensure a healthy lifestyle. To shed light on how a good night's sleep affects the body, Patel breaks down the five main benefits of better sleep.

1. Better focus in the morning

Sleep is fuel for the brain, and the brain loves to sleep. Sleeping also acts as a memory bank for the body, storing all of the previous day’s memories for later use.

“Whatever happened yesterday at the office, we process at nighttime and put it in our hard drive so whenever we need it, it’s there,” Patel said. “We are not forgetting about it, so now we are able to focus on the project pretty deeply instead of forgetting the details.”

Alternatively, not getting enough sleep has negative long and short term effects. After one night of bad sleep, one may wake up irritable, lack focus at work or school, and have frequent headaches. A prolonged poor sleep pattern can cause depression, hormone imbalances, mood changes, memory issues and weight gain.

2. Stronger heart health

Not sleeping enough can also lead to high blood pressure, which affects the heart. Deep sleep is beneficial for the heart, and not getting enough sleep, or not being able to fall or stay asleep – also known as insomnia – can result in long term effects such as diabetes and stroke.

“As we go deeper and deeper into sleep, our hormones can help decrease our blood pressure so heart rate goes down,” Patel said. “That means it’s a better heart when we are not forcing it to pump too much.”

3. Sugar control

“If we get deep uninterrupted sleep, our blood sugar level stays low,” Patel said. “If we don’t sleep, our cortisol level goes up, and cortisol means high sugar and insulin resistance, which could lead to pre or full diabetes.”

4. Increased immune system

Deep sleep helps hormones in the body regulate the immune system. Getting a good night’s sleep helps recover from infection, injury and even helps boost vaccine effectiveness. Patel said she has especially noticed the importance of sleep during the pandemic, noting that patients who get better sleep were and are less likely to have worse symptoms if they contract COVID-19.

“Chronic loss of sleep can cause a rise in inflammatory cytokines and cause a higher risk of heart disease and metabolic disease,” she said.

5. Weight control

According to Patel, a common misconception surrounding weight loss is that diet and exercise are the only contributing factors. In actuality, sleep is also a key component of both weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight.

Weight gain is directly linked with not getting enough sleep because it imbalances hormones, especially Leptin and Ghrelin. Leptin is a satiety hormone that helps prevent triggering hunger when the body does not need more energy, and Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates hunger. Sleep deprivation causes Ghrelin levels to rise and Leptin levels to fall, causing the urge to eat more.

“When we don’t sleep, we are tired and our mood changes, so now we are going to eat more carbs and unhealthy foods, and we are not exercising because our muscles didn’t get a chance to heal,” Patel said.

Other factors

Sleeping too much can also negatively affect health, as it is associated with a high risk of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and more. Sleeping more than nine hours on average per night is an indicator that there may be other health issues such as sleep apnea, chronic fatigue and depression.

What you can do

Patel recommends that patients seek help when their personal or professional life is being negatively affected by their chronic insomnia. She said many people believe it is okay to not get enough sleep during the week and then catch up on the weekends – but that’s not always true.

“If we need two hours to catch up in a week then it’s okay, but most people with chronic insomnia are always in ‘sleep debt’ that begins to accumulate and causes long term health issues,” Patel said.

While medication can be helpful in some cases, the first and most important tool to help those struggling with sleep is to enforce sleep hygiene. Some tips for good sleep hygiene include adopting rituals to relax and avoiding electronics two hours before bedtime, avoiding alcohol and nicotine within six hours of going to sleep, and making the bedroom quiet, dark and slightly cool.

More information about sleep and doctors who can diagnose related conditions can be found on the ARC website.

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