American College of Nutrition Certified Nutrition Specialist | Author | Professor of Nutrition



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Beautiful sleep

My dogs have no guilt about taking a nap whatsoever. Right in the middle of the day. Heck, in the middle of the morning. The warm spot on the couch or chair, in the sun, snoring away with abandon. And while yes, they are lazy, they are also intuitive and smart. Just like they know clothes do not make the man, they know that sleep is essential for us to function.

No significant physical change can happen in our bodies without enough sleep. There. I said it. This crazy “I only need four hours of sleep!” as some sort of bragging right needs to stop. There is no moral superiority for those who manage to get by on less sleep, and research shows time and again that they are no more productive, actually they are less productive, than those who get enough. Whew.

When I look at research about sleep, the cut-off for sufficient sleep is seven hours. That’s right. Less than seven hours a night is officially sleep deprivation. People who get less than seven hours a night get sick almost three times as much as those who get eight hours or more. Yes, that’s three times, an increase of 300%.

Why? Good question. Sleep is when our body heals itself, repairs tissue damage from the day, and detoxes itself. Sleep is when our neurons organize that happened to us during the day and file it into long-term memory. Sleep is when our stress hormones are turned off and our metabolism resets itself.

When it is dark our bodies produce the hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy. Melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant, fighting chronic inflammation and repairing damage to our cells’ DNA so that when those cells divide they make new healthy cells. Damaged DNA leads to cells becoming cancerous. Chronic inflammation leads to heart disease and diabetes. Melatonin also helps protect nerve tissue in the brain from the protein damage that leads to Alzheimer’s Disease. It can also prevent headaches from forming the next day.

So why don’t we just take melatonin in a pill and get on with staying up half the night? It doesn’t work that way. Researchers are not sure why, but getting the melatonin in a pill helps us for only about three months, then it stops working so well. And while melatonin is a powerful hormone, it is not the only benefit of sleep.

We crave carbohydrates throughout the day when we are tired. We all know what this means to our waistlines, not to mention our blood sugar and cholesterol. The stress that causes our bodies to hold onto fat in case we need to flee or survive a famine is turned off when we are asleep. Most of us desperately need this, especially if our days allow for very little de-stress time. And our failing memories need sleep. We need to remember our stories so we can tell our grandchildren.

Our over-caffeinated, sleep deprived bodies need us all to go to bed. There is no honor in not sleeping, only a lack of creativity and good judgement. Did you know that if you get less than six hours a night you will be impaired when driving your car? It’s like driving under the influence of alcohol. Sorry if I seem a little preachy – I’ve got a bee in my bonnet.

If you think you can’t possibly leave something undone, stop it. Lots of us lead perfectly happy lives with a few dust bunnies under the couch and our clothes a little wrinkled. Look over your day, and there will be things that don’t have to be done, or at least don’t have to be done by you.

If you are trying to change your eating habits for the better, and start an exercise habit, sleep is essential. Changing our habits is hard, and tired brains do not do it well. Neither do tired bodies. And getting sick? It doesn’t help anyone.

So go to bed early tonight, and find a way to sleep as late as you need to at least one morning a week. Try to get at least 7.5 hours a night – that’s five complete 90-minute sleep cycles. A few days of this and you will be amazed at how productive you become.

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