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How to get more sleep, lose weight and gain health...

Posted Sep 17 2008 12:07am

You can lose weight without changing what you eat or doing one minute of exercise!

It's a bold claim.

And don't get me wrong: Nutrition and exercise are important!

But there's another key to weight loss -- and most people don't even know about it.

It's sleep.

That's right. Besides eating whole foods and moving your body, getting enough sleep is the most important thing you can do for your health.

On the flip side, sleep deprivation makes you fat -- AND leads to depression, pain, heart disease, diabetes, and much more.

Take sleep apnea.

In this condition, your sleep is interrupted all night because your airway closes and your body startles you awake so you don't suffocate. 

This is a very common and extremely under-diagnosed problem.  It affects 18 million Americans and most are NOT treated for it.

Let me tell you about one of my patients who was in that same predicament.

He was so tired that he had to stand up at his computer to work during the day so he wouldn't fall asleep!

His wife reported hearing his horrible snoring and gasping episodes at night. He would fall right asleep as soon as he sat down to watch TV at night.

Most frightening, he had fallen asleep at the wheel when driving.

Then he came to see me.

When we got his sleep apnea diagnosed (with a sleep study in a sleep lab) and got him treated with a device to keep his airway open at night, he lost 50 pounds, his blood pressure turned to normal -- and he got his life back.

But people with sleep apnea are not the only ones in trouble.

It is estimated that 70 percent of Americans are sleep deprived. 

The era of Starbucks has been surpassed by an era of prescription stimulants to keep people awake and functioning, like dexadrine and Ritalin -- otherwise known as "speed" or amphetamines. 

Surprisingly, I see an increasing number of patients prescribed these "uppers" by their psychiatrist because coffee is not enough to keep them energetic.

If you can't do ten things at once, then something must be wrong with you, right? 


Your biological rhythms that keep you healthy produce cyclic pulses of healing and repair hormones, including melatonin and growth hormone.  When those rhythms are disturbed by inadequate or insufficient sleep, disease and breakdown get the upper hand. 

Most of us need at least 8 hours of restful sleep a night. 

But meeting this goal has become more and more difficult. 

We evolved along with the rhythms of day and night.  They signal a whole cascade of hormonal and neurochemical reactions that keep us healthy by repairing our DNA, building tissues and muscle, and regulating weight and mood chemicals. 

The advent of the light bulb changed all that.  

In fact, when I learned that shift work (like I did in when I worked in the emergency room) leads to a shortened life expectancy, I quit. 

When you are sleep deprived, your cortisol rises -- and so do all its harmful effects, including brain damage and dementia, weight gain, diabetes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, depression, osteoporosis, depressed immunity, and more. 

Good sleep is not something that just happens (unless you are a baby or teenager). 

There are clearly defined things that interfere with or support healthy sleep.

First, you have to prioritize sleep!  I used to think that "MD" stood for "medical deity" and meant I didn't have to follow the same sleep rules as every other human being.  Was I wrong!

Our lives are infiltrated with stimuli -- and we keep stimulated until the moment we get into bed.  This is not the way to get restful sleep. 

It's no wonder we can't sleep well when we eat late dinners, answer emails, surf the 'net, or do work, and then get right into bed and watch the evening news about all the disaster, pain, and suffering in the world. 

We must take a little "holiday" in the 2 hours before bed. 

Creating a sleep ritual -- a special set of little things you do before bed to help ready your system physically and psychologically for sleep -- can guide your body into a deep, healing sleep.

We all live with a little bit of post-traumatic stress syndrome (or, I should say, traumatic stress syndrome, because for many of us there is nothing "post" about it). 

Much research has been done on the effects of stress and traumatic experiences and images on sleep.  If you follow the guidelines for restoring normal sleep here, your posttraumatic stress may truly become a thing of the past.

Here's how restore your natural sleep rhythm.  It may take weeks or months, but using these tools in a coordinated way will eventually reset your biological rhythms: 

* Practice the regular rhythms of sleep --  go to bed and wake up at the same time each day

* Use your bed for sleep and romance only -- not reading or television

* Create an aesthetic environment that encourages sleep by using serene and restful colors and eliminating clutter and distraction

* Create total darkness and quiet consider using eyeshades and earplugs

* Avoid caffeine -- it may seem to help you stay awake but actually makes your sleep worse

* Avoid alcohol -- it helps you get to sleep but makes your sleep interrupted and of poor quality

* Get regular exposure to daylight for at least 20 minutes daily. The light from the sun enters your eyes and triggers your brain to release specific chemicals and hormones like melatonin that are vital to healthy sleep, mood, and aging

* Eat no later than three hours before bed -- eating a heavy meal prior to bed will lead to a bad night's sleep

* Don't exercise vigorously after dinner

* Write your worries down. One hour before bed, write down the things that are causing you anxiety and make plans for what you might have to do the next day to reduce your worry. It will free up your mind and energy to move into deep and restful sleep

* Take a hot salt/soda aromatherapy bath. Raising your body temperature before bed helps to induce sleep.  A hot bath also relaxes your muscles and reduces tension physically and psychically.  By adding 1/2 to 1 cup of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) and 1/2 to 1 cup of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to your bath, you will gain the benefits of magnesium absorbed through your skin and the alkaline-balancing effects of the baking soda, both of which help with sleep

* Get a massage or stretch before bed

* Warm your middle, which raises your core temperature and helps trigger the proper chemistry for sleep.  Either a hot water bottle, or heating pad, or warm body, can do the trick

* Avoid medications that interfere with sleep. These include sedatives (these are used to treat insomnia, but ultimately lead to dependence and disruption of normal sleep rhythms and architecture), antihistamines, stimulants, cold medication, steroids, headache medication that contains caffeine, such as Fioricet

* Take relaxing minerals such as magnesium and calcium

* Use herbal therapies Try passionflower, or 320 mg to 480 mg of valerian (valeriana officinalis) root extract standardized to 0.2 percent valerenic acid one hour before bed

* Experiment with herbal combinations or blends to find the best effect for you

* Try 1 mg of melatonin at night.

* Get a relaxing tape or CD to help you get to sleep

Also, consider getting tested for a sleep disorder:

* There are many medical sleep disorders, the most common (and most under-diagnosed) is sleep apnea

* If you experience excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, snoring, and have been seen to stop breathing in the middle of the night by your spouse or partner, then you could be one of the many people with undiagnosed sleep apnea

* People with sleep apnea have a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and sudden death, so diagnosing and treating it is imperative. High blood pressure is a clue, because half of all people with high blood pressure have undiagnosed sleep apnea 

* Get an overnight sleep study done in a sleep lab.  It may the best thing you ever do for yourself.  It might just save your life!

So remember -- don't skimp on sleep.  It is one of the most powerful healing treatments for your body that is available to you every day.

To read more, see "The Promise of Sleep" by William C. Dement MD, PhD (Random House, 1999).

Now I'd like to hear from you...

How much sleep do you typically get each night? Do you think it's enough?

If you are not getting enough sleep, what do you think is the cause?

What healthy sleep habits to you plan to start?

Have you noticed a connection between your weight or health and how much sleep you get?

Please click on the Add a Comment button below to share your thoughts.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

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