Why do we sleep? It is a question that has plagued me for most of my life. As a bit of a workaholic at times, I often lie awake and think about how much more we as humans could accomplish if we didn’t have to deal with this pesky time drainer called sleep.
As a kid I used to go to sleepovers and spend the entire night looking up at the ceiling and wondering how my friends were able to close their eyes and drift into unconsciousness. For me it didn’t work that way. One time in middle school I pulled an all nighter just because I thought it might be cool, and I think my body got a little overenthusiastic about it because it’s been trying to pull all nighters every day since.
In high school it was a regular occurrence that I would stay up until 3am studying and then wake up at 5am for school. My body became sick. I started feeling like I was deteriorating. But as hard as I started trying to get more sleep, I could not. I would lie awake with anxious thoughts night after night. It got so bad that often times, as soon as the sun went down, I would have anxiety attacks at the anticipation of the long night ahead of me.
Scientists think they have the answer. Why do we sleep? Well apparently all the hard work our brains do creates metabolic waste. Just like the metabolic waste in our body must be cleared, the waste in our brains must be cleared as well. It’s likely that a sort of “rinse cycle” happens in our brain while we sleep. Why we sleep and why we dream might be different though. I believe dreams aid in information processing and memory. But that’s a different topic.
But what does any of this have to do with craving sugar? Studies show that those who are chronically sleep deprived tend to also have issues managing their weight. Further research indicates that insomnia is linked to sugar and junk food cravings. This could be because sleep deprivation lowers our decision making abilities, leading us to make less healthy choices. It may also make us more sensitive to the dopamine reward system, and us sugar addicts know how strongly sugar triggers that reward system. A higher need for a dopamine release and lowered inhibition? It’s no wonder why I might eat an entire box of donuts after a rough night of sleep.
It’s no question that sleep deprivation also leads to higher levels of stress, and don’t get me started on emotional eating.
Having personal experience, I know how difficult the fatigue and utter exhaustion of sleep deprivation makes it to stay active. An intense workout on 3 hours of sleep? Forget about it. Not only am I less likely to workout, but I’m less likely to stay active in general. That trip to the grocery store can wait. Get up and move? No, I need to sit and rest. If I did manage to get a good weight lifting session in, I noticed it takes weeks to feel I’ve recovered from that one lifting session. This is more than delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), this is a huge lack of recovery – one of the most important aspects of fitness.
Most of us workout for some aesthetic reasons, but we also have long term health motivations. The fact is that less sleep, more stress, and more sugar consumption all lead to higher risks of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cognitive decline, and death.
Every online resource will tell you to keep to a consistent schedule, limit blue light (electronic screen) time before bed, sleep in a cool dark room, avoid caffeine, and exercise regularly. And these things can help. But there’s only so much I can limit caffeine and phone time without it having severe consequences on my productivity and social life, and to be honest, I don’t know if I’m physically or mentally capable of sticking to a 100% regimented routine (I’m a drifter at heart).
What I have found is that stress reduction is key, and sometimes you have to accept yourself for who you are (if you are a night owl you can spend years trying to turn yourself into a morning person and it will be years of torture with little outcome). We need to make sleep a number one priority and make sure to seek help from medical professionals.
This is important whether the goal is weight loss/management, eating healthier, building muscle and “toning up”, or simply living a longer life.
In my quest to understand the battle with constant sugar and junk food cravings, and inability to quit, we must take a magnifying glass to our lifestyle. How conditioned have we become to eating in front of the tv? How much sleep are we getting? What was our relationship like with food as children? What are our triggers for craving junk food?
When we can identify and overcome all of these factors leading us to make unhealthy diet choices, we have a better chance of actually sticking to healthy habits.