Sleep and Its Effect on Health, Immunity and Weight

As we continue to trend through the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, immunity remains on our minds. Studies suggest sleep deprivation can reduce the body’s ability to build up defenses against illness. Immune systems with healthy sleep were better at “remembering” a virus and had an enhanced ability to attack it.

Along with proper diet and regular exercise, getting enough sleep has come to be known as the “3rd pillar of health”. The average adult requires between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Shorting yourself time spent asleep, night after night, accumulates as “sleep debt”, and research suggests that this may be associated with increased risk of becoming obese, developing diabetes, and hypertension. It turns out that missing out on sleep can make it physically harder to improve your eating habits. Some studies demonstrate that not getting an adequate amount of sleep leaves you hungrier throughout the day and makes you crave sweet foods. It could be argued that healthy sleep habits are the foundation to leading a healthier life.

Sleep debt and obesity: people report feeling hungrier when they are short on sleep. Studies find that there may be a physiological basis to this experience, and that not getting enough sleep alters your appetite regulation. When compared to a group of people that were getting an adequate amount of sleep, the people that were sleep restricted had higher levels of Ghrelin in their bloodstream. Ghrelin is a hormone that is secreted by your stomach and signals to your brain that you are hungry. If you are consistently under sleeping, there is a good chance that you will also consistently eat more calories than your body requires, which leads to unwanted weight gain.

Another reason why lack of sleep is correlated with obesity and other undesirable health outcomes is that people tend to crave sweets when they haven’t gotten enough sleep. Researchers compared a group of people that were sleep restricted to a group of people that were getting enough sleep. The sleep restricted group routinely chose to eat sweeter foods than the well-rested participants of the study. So on top of being hungrier than normal, the foods you choose to eat to satisfy your hunger are more likely to be a calorie dense candy-bar, or something else that is loaded with sugar. This is the perfect recipe to exceed the amount of calories that your body requires, and can lead to unwanted weight gain.

Setting positive sleep habits may be easier said than done, but there are a number of actions you can take in order to increase the likelihood of getting a good night’s rest.

1. Follow a consistent sleep schedule

2. Limit the amount of visually stimulating content (tv /phone/computer screens) you expose yourself to in the hours leading up to bedtime, instead of looking at a screen try reading a book.

3. Avoid drinking any caffeinated beverages up to 6 hours before your bedtime. Coffee is not the only culprit, many soft drinks and other beverages such as tea can also contain moderate amounts of caffeine.

These are not the only actions you can take to support a healthy sleep pattern, but they are certainly a starting point for someone who may have issues falling asleep or staying asleep!

The CDC reports that 1 in 3 Americans do not get enough sleep. Perhaps this might provide some insight into why 42% of Americans are classified as obese. It should come as no surprise that the human body requires a certain level of care in order to function properly and minimize the risk of developing chronic disease. However, it seems that getting enough sleep, maintaining a proper diet, and exercising regularly are more closely interconnected with each other than one might assume.

Nicole Maslar RDN, LDN with contributions from Gershom Grossman UMass Dietetic Intern

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