by: Sherika Tenaya
Far from being an inactive, passive period of system shutdown where all functions of the body wane into stagnation, the time that we spend sleeping is a pivotal and essential phase of profound regeneration.
And yet, despite science enumerating in illicit detail the dire consequences of sleep deprivation, we simply do not prioritize proper sleep in lieu of late night shenanigans, pressing work to-do’s and weekend flights of fancy.
According to the National Sleep Foundation’s findings, forty five percent of Americans report poor or insufficient sleep to the point that it affects their daily activities.
Dr. Michael Breus, acclaimed sleep expert, corroborates these findings in his fascinating blog when he says, “More than a third of adults in the U.S. are regularly logging less than 7-8 hours of sleep.”
Clearly we have a problem.
Especially considering that the consequences of de-prioritizing sleep are far-reaching, “Sleeping longer or shorter than 7 - 8 hours in a 24 hour period has been shown to be associated with a spectrum of health challenges,” writes Dr. Kelly Brogan in her book A Mind of Your Own. “from cardiovascular disease and diabetes to automobile and workplace accidents, learning and memory problems, weight gain, and yes, depression and excess mortality.”
A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology states that logging 6 or less hours of sleep for just one night reduces alertness during the daytime in most people by about one third and can even impair one’s ability to operate machinery and perform basic bodily functions in the same manner as alcohol.
The reason why is that sleep is anything but a time of empty stillness in the body, commonly thought to be characterized by a “powering down” of all our functions.
Since time immemorial, men and women both have danced to the beat of our circadian rhythms, defined by the pattern of recurring activity associated with the environmental cycles of day and night; usually of 24 hour duration, including the sleep/wake cycle, characterized by cascading shifts in hormones and the rise and fall of body temperature.
It is the shift in hormones that I will focus on here.
Less Sleep Means More Weight Gain
Two of the primary hormones affected are ghrelin, the hormone that tells us we need to eat, and leptin, which tells us when we have had enough to eat. According to some research performed by the University of Chicago Medical Center, “When people sleep just 4 hours a night for 2 consecutive nights, they experienced a 24 percent increase in hunger and gravitated toward high calorie treats, salty snacks and starchy foods.”
Deep Sleep Encourages Healthy Hormones
There is a silent hormonal dance that happens throughout the circadian cycle involving both cortisol and melatonin. Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone”, peaks in the morning and wanes throughout the day. It should be lowest around 11pm, when melatonin levels rise.
Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland and is referred to as a “potent antioxidant hormone that signals sleep” in my readings. Once released, it slows the body down, lowering blood pressure and cooling core body temperature to prep you for sleep. Increasing levels of this hormone facilitates nourishing deep sleep, which in turn facilitates healthy levels of other important hormones like growth hormone, thyroid hormone and sex hormones.
Quality of Sleep Determines Immune Function
Cortisol also plays an essential role in your body’s ability to fight pathogens and allergens. Dr. Brogan explains, “Nocturnal shifts in cortisol result in increased immune cell activity at night. Sleep, particularly slow wave sleep, supports adaptive immunity, the memory defense that works in concert with the frontline innate immune system.”
She goes on to say that women are more susceptible to impaired immune function with those “sleeping fewer than 8 hours measuring higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood work.” And if sleep deprivation goes on for several days in a row, inflammation becomes dysregulated, although she mentions that daytime napping can compensate for that effect.
Lack of Sleep can Adversely Alter Gene Expression
In a previous blog, I described a burgeoning new science called epigenetics, which describes how there is more to our genetic outcome than the genes we are born with. It posits that genes can actually be turned on or off throughout our lifetime based on our lifestyle.
Widely esteemed neurologist, Dr. David Perlmutter, describes the impact of de-prioritizing sleep on gene expression, “In early 2013, scientists in England found that a week of sleep deprivation altered the function of 711 genes, including some involved in stress, inflammation, immunity & metabolism.”
When it comes to sleep, there is always a price to be paid for relegating it to a lower position on the priority list. There is so much more to “beauty sleep” than what you see on the outside. Sleep is a time of system regeneration, of growth and healing that every woman would do well to hold sacred.