It’s nearing the end of the long summer holiday. Soon, our daily schedules will be upon us. For many of us living in fast-paced Hong Kong, this can mean long days and nights, which most likely affect our sleep patterns.
But would you prioritise more sleep if you knew that burning the midnight oil (or, indeed, scrolling through your phone mindlessly at midnight) could make you put on excess weight, alongside many other negative health effects?
The importance of sleep
Sleep plays a vital role in regulating metabolism and appetite. When we lack even a small amount of sleep, the metabolic system goes out of balance, affecting our dietary choices and the way we metabolise calories.
It’s no coincidence that while our average sleep time decreased between the 1950s to 2000s—from about 8.5 hours to 6.5 hours per night—there has been an increase in the prevalence of obesity from about 10 per cent to about 23 per cent. Overworking, device addiction, increased travel, etc. have all played a role in reducing sleep-time.
Cortisol and insulin
To understand further, let’s look at two key hormones: cortisol and insulin. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone,” and sleep deprivation triggers a spike in its production. Cortisol then signals your body to conserve energy to fuel your waking hours, a defence mechanism designed to protect the body from perceived stressful conditions. The bottom line is, you’re more likely to hang on to fat with increased cortisol levels.
Summing this up, University of Chicago researchers report that sleep deprivation makes us “metabolically groggy.” Within just four days of insufficient shut-eye, your body’s ability to process insulin—a hormone needed to change sugar, starches, and other food into energy—goes out of balance, meaning we are less likely to burn off excess calories from these sources.
Further research shows that REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is when we also burn fat, so the more you sleep, the more REM sleep you'll get to burn more calories.
For many of us, falling asleep and/or staying asleep can be a challenge. The usual worries and stresses of life can play a big role in being able to switch off, let alone our inability to keep our hands off our phones. However, with a few small tweaks, you could be sleeping your way to a slimmer waist. Here’s how:
1) Make a schedule
Go to bed at the same time each night, ideally, even on weekends—this helps regulate your body clock. Put your phone in another room, purchase an alarm clock (remember those?) and read a book instead. My phone, I hear you cry? Yet when you think of fitting into your new winter jeans or alleviating poor health due to obesity, it’s not too much to ask.
2) Create a relaxing environment
Practice pre-sleep rituals for relaxation. Have a warm bath/shower, meditate or utilise meditative breathing and mindfulness (apps abound). Rub lavender oil on to your temples and inhale deeply. Keep the room cool, but not colder than about 20 degrees. Try to block out as much light as possible.
3) Snack well
A small handful of tart cherries can work. These are one of the few natural sources of melatonin, which is responsible for the regulation of the body's internal clock and sleep-wake cycle. Sip the tried and tested chamomile tea.
4) Exercise during the day
Vigorous exercise is ideal, but any form of physical activity is better than nothing. Exercise helps with mood regulation, helping you process challenges from the day. The solution here is to think of exercise for better sleep like weight loss—it may take some time to reap results, so don’t expect miracles after one day.
Make exercise frequent, and choose workouts like HIIT and vigorous Vinyasa in the mornings, and more relaxing and restorative practices in the evening such as yin/hatha yoga and Decompression Anti- Gravity release.
5) Hydrate during the day
Drink plenty of clean water, but don't drink too much in the few hours before you sleep.
So, if you still have a few days left of holiday time, what better way to set up sleep routines for when day-to-day life returns? Sweet dreams!