A growing body of evidence highlights the significant role sleep plays in weight gain and maintaining mental health.
Getting enough sleep is essential for our physical and mental wellbeing – so, it’s somewhat unsurprising that a lack of sleep is linked to poorer health.
With a growing body of evidence looking at what happens to our body during sleep – and the negative effects that occur when we don’t get enough of it – the importance of getting 8 hours of sleep every night is clear.
Sleep and mental health
A lack of sleep has a range of health implications that impact mental health, according to Russel Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford.
Writing for The Conversation, Professor Foster explained how many essential activities actually occur in our bodies during sleep, such as:
- Cellular repair
- Toxin clearance
- Consolidating memories
- Processing information
Disrupting our sleep and natural circadian rhythm is dangerous, he argued. It can happen when you’re jet-lagged or a shift-worker. When our internal synchronisation of the circadian network is broken down, “our ability to do the right thing at the right time is greatly impaired,” says Professor Foster.
Here’s what happens when your natural circadian rhythm and sleep are disrupted:
- Negative emotions increase – such as mood fluctuations, depression, psychosis, irritability, frustration, risk-taking, stimulant use and illegal drug use
- Cognition becomes impaired – memory, attention, concentration, communication, decision-making, creativity and productivity are all impacted by a lack of sleep
- Increased risk of health and other risks – such as drowsiness and unintended sleep (eg behind the wheel)
- Increased risk of serious illness – such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic disorders, heart disease, immunity-related issues
Professor Foster also suggested mental illness and sleep disruption may share common and overlapping pathways in the brain.
Sleep and weight gain
Several key studies have linked a lack of sleep with excessive weight gain – which makes sense. Being tired can mean engaging in unhealthy habits like drinking too much coffee, consuming a lot of takeaway, skipping exercise, and eating late at night – all of which have the potential to lead to weight gain over time.
Reviews have linked poor sleep quality with obesity, metabolic syndrome and hypertension (high blood pressure).
“Because of modern conveniences and pressures, many of us keep our bodies exposed to light, food, and activity at times when our organs and cells expect dark, quiet, and sleep,” one author speculated in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
“Studies of the possible mechanisms behind these associations suggest that lack of sleep is part of a bigger problem with the 24/7 lifestyle many people today lead. Studies in mice as well as humans suggest that when our internal clock is disrupted, it may throw off many bodily functions, especially metabolism.”
Tips for maintaining healthy sleep patterns
If you’re having trouble getting regular sleep, try these tips to ensure 8 hours of shut-eye each and every night:
- Switch off devices one hour before bed – read a book, listen to music – but don’t stare at any screens (the ‘blue light’ from your devices can actually make it harder for you to fall and stay asleep)
- Reduce caffeine in the afternoon – caffeine is a stimulant and can keep you awake
- Create a bedroom environment that promotes healthy sleep – keep your bedroom free of screens, televisions and other distractions
- Exercise regularly – regular exercise helps you feel great, maintain a healthy weight, enhance your fitness, and also uses up energy which helps you to feel more tired at the end of the day and fall asleep easier
- Go to bed at the same time every day – this helps you establish a predictable sleep routine
- Reduce alcohol – drinking alcohol before bed can cause you to wake up earlier, and feel more tired when you do wake, because it interferes with your normal sleep process
- Eat a healthy diet – aim for 2 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables every day, as well as whole grains, lean meat and dairy
- Examine your stress levels – consider if there are any stressors in your life that may be keeping you awake at night, and take steps to reduce these (eg yoga, meditation, massage)