Sleep: The Missing Link

  • Sleep is when the body repairs itself, the importance of this process cannot be overstated
  • Missing sleep makes you insulin resistant, which makes it really hard to lose weight
  • Sleeping less than 6 hours per night is associated with chronic, low-grade inflammation
  • Lack of sleep has been correlated with higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and fatty liver disease
  • Melatonin enhances cytokine production, boosting your immunity
  • You cannot be healthy without adequate sleep, no matter what your diet and exercise regime

Bad Sleep

Sleep! You need to sleep. I’m not joking and neither is your body. We don’t even really know why we need to sleep, what precisely is going on when we sleep, but we do know that a few critical processes take place while we are asleep that involve repairing and adapting the body to set it right with where it’s been and where it’s going. Without your repair time, you set yourself up to be vulnerable to a host of disease states, lowered productivity and sub-par mental performance, and of course the dreaded dark circles/ puffy eyes thing.

Waking when the sun comes up and going to sleep when it gets dark is one of the most natural and consistent elements of human life. Think about that. What do the structures of our lives have in common with cavemen? Not much anymore. But humans have always slept at night… because we’re diurnal. These are deeply ingrained circadian rhythms that you are messing with when you stay up until 3 in the morning and sleep past noon. It would be weird to see bats flying around in the morning and it’s weird when humans can’t go to sleep until right before sun-up.

We know that getting a bad night of sleep makes us insulin resistant the following day, like a type 2 diabetic. Ever notice that your appetite is insatiable after a night of bad sleep? Ghrelin levels go up if you don’t sleep. That’s our hunger hormone. This isn’t a good combination with insulin resistance.

In the amazing book, Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival, TS Wiley discusses a study conducted on rats. There were two groups, a long sleep group and a short sleep group. The rats were exposed to a host of known carcinogens. Most of the rats in the low sleep group developed aggressive tumors, and hardly any of the ones in the long sleep group did, but when they did, it was easier to combat and with a much lower fatality rate.

Melatonin is the stuff your body produces to make you sleepy- you don’t get tired just because you’ve had a long day, you get tired because your brain knows it’s dark and starts converting the amino acid tryptophan to 5-HTP to melatonin. In the afternoon, it converts it to serotonin, which mellows you out, but doesn’t make you sleepy. Without the amino acid, tryptophan, we can’t make these things, and some of us have awful bouts of depression because of it. I’m off track, but I’m going somewhere with this.

So your body produces hormones that make you feel a certain way in response to a stimulus. Light and specific colors of light are one such stimulus. So if you have a giant TV, or stare into your computer screen late at night, you could be messing up your melatonin production. Sometimes bad sleep is easy to fix when it’s just our own fault for not prioritizing sleep.

However, if you are chronically stressed out, either from your lifestyle, bad food choices or not enough food, overtraining, or a crappy relationship, you might have too much cortisol in your body to get sleepy, or stay asleep, even with the best of intentions.  If this is going on, cortisol is likely making it impossible to lose weight and put on muscle. It’s also suppressing your immune system- basically what cortisol does is prepare the body to handle stress. It helps you handle the stress, but it also shuts off or turns down other important, normal processes your body needs to carry out daily to stay healthy. It also helps the body break down muscle into fuel to be used for your brain. Stress was never intended to be chronic. In a too-much cortisol situation, you’re candle has melted, your wick is fried: you need an intervention!