Why 7 Sleeping Hours Matter So Much

by | Jun 17, 2015 | Integrative Medicine

sleeping womanEarlier this month, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society released a joint consensus statement that confirms what most of us have “known” in some way all along: You need at least 7 hours of sleep each night for optimal health.

That association between sleep and wellness is one we’ve looked at before and noted how a lot of us short-change ourselves when it comes to this essential factor in creating radiant health. And it seems not a day goes by that we don’t learn more about how sleep helps or the risks we run by skimping on sleep.

One set of risks is the focus of a paper just published in the Journal of Research Psychology, which gathers together what we know so far about the various ways lack of sleep may trigger overeating.

For one, it throws the appetite controlling hormones out of whack. Ghrelin – which triggers appetite and increases hunger – gets elevated, while leptin – which reduces hunger – decreases. End result? We feel hungry and don’t know we’re already full! (Interestingly, ghrelin is involved in sleep promotion, as well.)

Impulse control is also impaired, making it that much easier to reach for whatever looks good, nutrition be damned. Meanwhile, our brain’s reward system becomes more sensitive, meaning that the little neurochemical rush we may get from chocolate or a savory snack makes us feel even better than it would if we were well-rested. Naturally, we seek further reward – even more sweets and savories .

These are just a few of the dynamics described in this fascinating – and accessible – review of the scientific literature.

Another risk that poor sleep raises is Alzheimer’s disease. This is the focus of a new study in Nature Neuroscience. Studying a group of 26 older adults who had not been diagnosed with dementia, the researchers looked for relationships between sleep, memory and the build-up of beta-amyloid – the peptides involved in generating the plaques typically found in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims.

Overall, the results showed that the study participants with the highest levels of beta-amyloid in the medial frontal cortex had the poorest quality of sleep and, consequently, performed worst on the memory test the following morning, with some forgetting more than half of the information they had memorized the previous day.

“The more beta-amyloid you have in certain parts of your brain, the less deep sleep you get and, consequently, the worse your memory,” Walker said. “Additionally, the less deep sleep you have, the less effective you are at clearing out this bad protein. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Such studies are reminders of why it’s so important to make good and sufficient sleep a habit.

One technique that many have found helpful is the yoga-inspired 4-7-8 breathing exercise developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, which helps relax the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a state of calmness. Dr. Weil refers to it as a “natural tranquilizer” that can help you fall asleep in just 60 seconds. Here’s how it’s done:

Often, what keeps us awake at night are thoughts chugging out of control. We have trouble letting go and turning off our brains. Controlled breathing exercises like this one can help you still those thoughts and come into the moment. The focus is no longer on your worries, concerns, fears or other nagging thoughts; it is on your breath. That mindful moment is often just long enough to create a peaceful feeling that will allow you to drift into sleep.

You’ll find more tips for improving sleep quality in our previous post – and in upcoming posts, as well.

Sleep. It’s just that important.

Image by Ana C.

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