Source: Jane Smith/Stocksnap
My colleagues and I are attentive to our health. Ordering a meal at a restaurant can be a complex negotiation between preference and nutrition, and regular exercise has become a priority. However, despite these efforts, many of us continue to ignore one of the most important predictors of physical and mental health: sleep.
We humans are the only animal that willfully deprives itself of sleep. Our days are long and full, with numerous responsibilities, and our nights are overfull as well; with phones, Facebook and Netflix, society’s latest obsessions. Certainly we all recognize that sleep is good for us, and most of us have experienced the unpleasant days that follow a lack of sleep. However, many of us may not be fully aware of just how much we are endangering our health when we turn a blind eye to this need.
Consider this. After just five to six nights’ poor sleep, we increase our risk of heart disease and we begin to exhibit pre-diabetic symptoms; and after a years’ poor sleep, our risk of depression increases by forty percent. Less well-known is the fact that sleep deprivation sets us up for potential obesity, because it suppresses the hormone that signals the brain that our stomachs are full, which leads to carbohydrate cravings. Inadequate sleep presents an additional risk to our well-being – it makes us grumpy and more easily angered. Without healing sleep, we become most tired and irritable each day just when we spend the most time with our families. Regarding this risk, one of my university professors shared a secret of his successful marriage. He said that he and his wife never discussed any important issue after 7:00 p.m. “If it was important, we should have discussed it earlier in the day,” he remarked. “And, if it wasn’t that important, we can wait till we are rested to address the issue.”
So, we agree then…good sleep is essential for good health. No doubt we have all heard the standard good advice for healthy sleep. Recommendations include waking up at the same time each day, avoiding caffeine after lunch, limiting alcohol use, etc. Today, however, I want to share with you one additional strategy for good sleep that is less well known: monitoring when and how much we eat. Many of my clients and friends exhibit a common eating pattern: they eat very little (if any) breakfast, a small lunch, and a sizable dinner, often with clients or friends. What they don’t realize is that when dinner is the largest meal of the day, sleep becomes a challenge. Food is the body’s fuel and most or all of the fuel reaches our blood streams a few hours after each meal. Therefore, when consuming a big dinner, the body receives its largest surge of energy at exactly the wrong time. Picture here pressing your car’s accelerator fully to the floor just a few feet prior to your arrival at stop signal. You couldn’t help but run right through it! Eating late and large is also hard on the heart, as digestion requires blood to be pumped to the stomach. When we eat a large meal late in the day, the heart is hard at work when it should be resting.
For a couple of reasons, many people find the advice to eat a larger meal early in the day and to eat several times per day hard to swallow (sorry about the pun). First, they might say “I’m not hungry till night time.” They are correct, of course, largely due to the fact that their body has developed a habit of being fed only once each day. However, if they were to eat three meals regularly, they would get hungry three times a day. The lack of extreme hunger that results from frequent meals is an advantage. Since there are no hunger pains, food choices can be healthy rather than an attempt to satisfy cravings.
A second reason that some people are reluctant to eat three or more times each day is that they are struggling with weight gain. They may be fearful that eating smaller meals more frequently may contribute to the problem. Actually, the opposite is true. People who eat only one meal a day tend to overeat at night, then feel guilty so they starve themselves the next day in order to keep calories down. Unfortunately, this leads to over-eating again at night! The best bet for good health and a healthy weight is a combination of eating several meals of the right size, at the right time each day, followed by a solid stretch of good, restorative sleep.
I’m hoping that these ideas will become “food for thought” and, if you will forgive me one more pun, I hope you’ll sleep on it.