Lifestyle

Widespread chronic sleep deprivation seen as a cause for concern | Gustafson

There are multiple causes for the so-called lifestyle-related diseases that plague us today. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension can mostly be blamed on poor nutrition, lack of exercise, stress and, as scientists increasingly find out, sleep deprivation.

Over the last few decades, Americans have kept cutting back on their sleep as their lives have become busier. Long hours spent on work, commutes, kids' activities and household chores leave less and less time for rest. While a few generations ago people slept for eight hours or more, most Americans have to get by on six hours or less today.

And it's not only the difference in the amount of time but also the quality of the rest we get that has turned us into a nation of chronically sleep-deprived zombies.

"Sleep deprivation is reaching epidemic proportions and may soon be our nation's number one health problem," says Cindy Heroux, a Registered Dietitian and author of "The Manual That Should Have Come With Your Body."

"When you don't get enough sleep, you are more likely to suffer from certain chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. You are also more likely to gain weight or become obese," she says.

What is the connection? Sleep deprivation can lead to disruption of your metabolism, which in turn can make the cells in your body more insulin resistant. Insulin resistance causes the cells to think they are being starved and, as a result, urgent hunger signals are dispatched to the brain, making you want to eat. That is one of the reasons why people reach for food when they are overtired or stressed out.

A recent study published in the "Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism" concluded that even short-term sleep deprivation can activate the appetite-controlling part of the brain, increasing hunger levels. Researchers have calculated that for each hour a person cuts back on sleep, he or she consumes an average of 360 additional calories. If extra calories are not burned off, they are stored as fat and insulin resistance increases even further. It's a vicious cycle and the negative health effects can be multiple.

'We walk around like zombies'

Some experts say that it's not just the perpetual lack of sleep that makes Americans sick but also the ways we are trying to cope with being chronically sleep deprived. Too many people just muddle through their tiredness, says Dr. Matthew Edlund, author of "The Power of Rest." He believes that the widespread reliance on energy drinks like "Red Bull," "Monster" and "5-Hour Energy" does potentially more harm than users realize.

"We don't use our bodies the way they're built to be used," he says. "We guzzle energy drinks and then can't sleep at night. We sit all day and then read emails at 3 a.m. It's no wonder we walk around like zombies and treat these drinks like liquid life support. It's a good time to question these trends and find healthier ways to power up."

Instead of using energy boosters that work short-term but eventually only add to the exhaustion resulting from sleep deprivation, nutrition experts recommend protein-rich snacks like low-fat yogurt or cheese or peanut butter. In the end, however, there is only one solution and that is getting regularly a good night's sleep.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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