I have the very best doctor. I found her through a Google search for, "best doctor in (my city)." Patients had given her amazing reviews online and so I called and got a spot as a patient. Even though I've now moved about an hour away, I still go to her. She's awesome in so many ways. She never makes you feel like she's got somewhere else to be, even though I know she's got a full schedule of patients. She has a sign above the scale in her office that says, "It's Just a Number." And she shares my first name :-)
During one of the first appointments I had with her, I was lamenting my weight. How it had gotten out of control and how hard I was trying to lose it without success. I was tired. And stressed. And basically just miserable.
She asked me about my schedule. How much sleep did I get? What did I eat? What was going on at work? How many hours was I working between my two jobs? What was my commute like? What kind of social support did I have? I answered all of her questions and then prepared myself for the diet and exercise recommendations--the tough love--I was sure was on the way.
But instead of a lecture. Instead of warnings. Instead of a prescription for Weight Watchers or the local gym, she said...
Sleep. She told me my only job right now was to make sure I got 7-9 hours of sleep every night and then figure out which quantity of hours made me feel my best. That’s it. I didn’t need to worry about changing my diet. Or getting up at the crack of dawn to exercise.
And when I had done that consistently for a few weeks, I could add in one other healthy activity. Just one.
She gave me a tremendous gift in that moment—the permission to be kind to myself. I am telling you, when she said “just sleep” I felt like crying, I was so happy. And relieved.
Sleep? Sleep I could do. Take everything else off the list for now and just focus on sleep? Yes. Yes, please.
I had to trust that if I did that one thing, that I would know when I was ready to add more.
And I did. One day I woke up and felt like trying to exercise again.
I had to reset a couple of times. I tried to do too much, too fast. But I caught myself each time and went back to the basics. Back to sleep. Then adding one thing at a time.
There are good reasons why my doctor had me focus on sleep first. There is not a single function of the body that does not rely, in large or small part, upon getting adequate sleep. Here are just a few:
- Sleep helps to regulate your hormones, including the hormone that generates feelings of hunger (ghrelin) and the one that gives you the signal of being satiated (leptin). If you don’t get enough sleep, the former goes up and the latter goes down. So, you feel hungry more often and have trouble feeling full, both of which can lead you to eat more.
- Your body repairs itself during sleep. Your muscles, blood vessels, heart and other major organs use the time when you are asleep to fix damage and (in the case of your muscles) increase mass. If you exercise, sleep is when that microscopic damage you did to your muscles during your workout gets repaired and additional muscle fibers are generated.
- Your immune system relies on sleep to function at its optimal level. Inadequate rest leaves you vulnerable to infections like the common cold, but also to chronic disease. Studies have found a relationship between insufficient sleep and an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
- Your ability to complete basic and complex tasks at work, school or at home is compromised. Things can take longer, and you are more prone to making mistakes when sleep deficient. The National Institutes of Health reports that, “after several nights of losing sleep—even a loss of just 1–2 hours per night—your ability to function suffers as if you haven't slept at all for a day or two.” Your memory, athletic performance, creative powers and the ability to learn new things are all improved with adequate sleep.
Okay, so how much sleep is enough and how do we make sure we are consistently getting enough sleep? For adults ages 18-64, the National Sleep Foundation (yes, sleep is so important there are research foundations dedicated to it!), recommends between 7-9 hours per night. For adults 65 and older, the recommended range is 7-8 hours. They have a sleep duration recommendations chart, which you can access here.
The foundation also has tips for ensuring a good night’s sleep, including: sticking to a sleep schedule (even on the weekends); exercising regularly; avoiding caffeine, alcohol and using electronics in the hours before bedtime; and making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and not too warm or too cold.
Here's some homework for you, if you're up for it. If you aren't getting your 7-9 hours, commit to doing that and determining your magic number of hours. It's 9 for me. Come up with your own bedtime ritual to follow too. Maybe you light your favorite scented candle and read for an hour before sleep. Maybe you do some yoga (there are some great evening yoga dvds out there). Maybe you meditate, or journal or just sit and think about your day.
And let us know how it goes!