Sleep vs. Body and Brain Health

As we’ve reported on other occasions, sleep deprivation leads to increased hunger — and not just hunger, but hunger for items rich in carbohydrates for quick energy. Thus people who are sleep deprived will reach for greasy fast foods, desserts, sweets, chips and the like, whereas those who’ve slept normally (eight or nine hours a night) will make wiser food choices because their hunger triggers still have their “safety” locked in place.

Studies, in fact, have shown that the sleep deprived will on average consume 600 more calories a day than the sleep refreshed. It’s no wonder then that sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain and health problems just from the hunger cycle itself.

But lack of sleep goes much further in reducing one’s functionality in the daytime — and worse, in distorting and making dysfunctional many of the daily decision-making challenges we face at work and at home.

One person who has conducted extensive studies into sleep deprivation versus normal sleep, Dr. Matthew P. Walker of the University of California, Berkeley, has discovered what he calls a “double hit” in brain activity following a night of too little sleep.

First, as mentioned above, he says that the hunger impulse kicks in, but second and worse, he says, the sleep deprived experience a “sharp reduction in activity in the

frontal cortex,” a higher-level area of the brain where consequences are weighed and rational decisions made. Thus the sleep deprived lose the rational mental brake on junk-food impulses (as well as other impulses) that they would have following a good night’s sleep.

Unfortunately, this reduction in frontal cortex activity also affects decision-making in general, not just food choices. We’ve probably all experienced times when we got into confrontations or unpleasant experiences with coworkers, friends or loved ones when we ended up apologizing and saying, “Sorry, I’m just not myself today.”

Yeah, right, you haven’t slept enough!

Sleep deprivation also increases stress levels. Lack of sleep increases the stress hormone cortisol, while one’s markers of inflammation likewise rise. People at the same time become less sensitive to insulin, increasing their risk of diabetes.

Dr. Walker uncovered not only the “double hit” from sleep deprivation, but also a proverbial double whammy from high-carbohydrate food consumption following sleep deprivation. The accumulation of fat from the carbohydrates produces “intense activity in an almond-shaped structure called the amygdala [in the brain], which helps regulate basic emotions as well as our desires for things like food and experiences.” So sleep deprivation followed by carb binges reinforce the bad effects of one another.

“There’s something that changes in our brain when we’re sleepy that’s irrespective of how much energy we need,” adds Dr. Kenneth Wright, the director of the sleep and chronobiology lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “The brain wants more even when the energy need has been fulfilled.”

In conclusion, Dr. Walker says that his studies make it clear that “there is not a single tissue in the body that is not beneficially affected by sleep.”

Sleep, he advises, is “the single most effective thing people can do every day to reset their brain and body health.”

Moral: If you have a sleep and/or snoring problem, seek help today.

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