At Cooper Healthy Living, adults from around the country come spend a week on the Cooper Aerobics campus where they stay, learn and transform their health. Equal parts nutrition, exercise, and overall well-being, the common denominator among the people who come is a dissatisfaction or concern about some aspect of their health. Many people complain their life just isn’t as balanced as want it to be, that they are tired, stressed, and weigh more than they’d like. Sleep, or lack of sleep, is a big issue for many.
For well over a year, I wore a wrist activity tracker, and in addition to tracking activity the device also tracked sleep. With a job that keeps me seated (in meetings, on the phone, or behind a computer), the first thing I quickly learned from the tracker is that I need to walk (and at a pretty good clip) for 40- to 45 minutes in order to get the surgeon general recommended 10,000 steps per day. The fact that I need time for purposeful exercise wasn’t a surprise, but the data on sleep was. After a few months of use, I had enough data to realize I need to subtract a full hour for non-sleep time from however many hours I’m in bed each night to accurately count my sleep. This was frankly a shocking revelation as my husband has long claimed I’m like a baby doll with eyes that slap closed when prone! However, the device reflected the truth – that it still takes time to fall asleep, time for a middle-of-the-night bathroom break, time to return to sleep after the cat walks across my body or after the dogs awake to go investigate a potential critter in the backyard. So all those nights I was thinking I’d gotten 8 hours, it was really 7, as I wasn’t estimating non-sleep time very well at all. Looking at the statistics of my tracker buddies, I don’t think I’m that unusual.
As most of the people I encounter don’t get enough sleep, I was fascinated to read about a study conducted by Matthew P. Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California. It looked at the impact of sleep deprivation on our brain. In the study (reported in 2013), Walker recruited 23 healthy young men and women to come spend the night at the lab on two separate occasions, separated by about a week. On the first visit, the individuals arrived at the lab, slept for approximately 8 hours, and then after a small breakfast of toast and strawberry jam, had a MRI (brain scan) while looking at 80 pictures of a variety of foods and rating how strongly they wanted the food in the image. (As part of the experiment, the subjects were promised that at the end of the test they would receive one of the foods that they had rated the highest.) About a week later, the individuals returned to the lab, but this time stayed awake the entire night. (While up, the individuals had snacks like apples and peanut butter, to offset the extra calories they burned being awake rather than asleep.) After being up all night, they repeated the exercise from the previous week – rating the same 80 food pictures while undergoing an MRI.
What Dr. Walker found was really interesting – when the individuals were rested, they chose healthy items to eat, but when they were tired, from just a single night of no sleep, they chose fattening foods, like salty treats, fried foods, or desserts. In fact, the caloric difference between the food choices of the well-rested subjects and the tired subjects was about 600 calories! In comparing the “rested” and “tired” MRIs of the individual, the MRI in a “tired” state showed a sharp reduction in activity in the frontal cortex, a higher-level part of the brain where consequences are weighed and rational decisions are made.
“What we have discovered is that high-level brain regions required for complex judgments and decisions become blunted by a lack of sleep, while more primal brain structures that control motivation and desire are amplified,” said Dr. Walker. Moreover, he added, “high-calorie foods also became significantly more desirable when participants were sleep-deprived. This combination of altered brain activity and decision-making may help explain why people who sleep less also tend to be overweight or obese.”
It’s not our imagination – Dr. Walker’s study scientifically shows how our brain is physically impacted by the level of sleep we have.
In Cooper Healthy Living I talk about this study to hone in on the importance of sleep. Firsthand, I know that if I’m rested, I have better impulse control, and if someone walks into my office bearing treats, there’s a much better chance I will focus on my long term goal of being able to continue to fit into my pants. On the other hand, if I’m tired and someone walks into my office bearing treats, regardless of whether I’m physically hungry or not, there’s a very good chance I’m going to accept, and hope they offer me seconds! When it comes to mental health, sleep problems are particularly common in patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Furthermore, it doesn’t seem implausible that if, when tired, I have difficulty making good, healthy decisions about what I should eat, the same might be just as true for the tired person who has an addiction – be it shopping, alcohol, drugs, or gambling.
Last month, the National Sleep Foundation released new sleep duration recommendations, after an expert panel of eighteen leading scientists and researchers reviewed more than 300 current scientific publications to determine how much sleep we really need. A chart was created that gives “rule-of-thumb” recommendations for all stages of life. Adults, age 18 and up, are now divided into three categories (young adults 18-25 years; adults 26-64 years; and older adults 65 and up), and currently all three categories have a recommended average of 7- to 9 hours of sleep. The chart also reflects that for some of us, fewer hours are needed, and for others, more. Interestingly, both too little sleep and too much sleep isn’t good for our health. I hope you’ll look at the chart, consider your own particular circumstances, and evaluate if some additional shuteye (or perhaps less), might be helpful in your overall health goals.
Written by Jill Turner, President of Cooper Healthy Living. Individuals interested in Cooper Healthy Living can call us at 800-444-5192 or by going to the website at www.CooperHealthyLiving.com.