Why We Overeat Part 3: Sleep

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In part 2 of this series on overeating we discussed how the stress response we live with daily  contributes to overeating. Understanding the stress hormones and fight or flight is important to understanding today’s topic: sleep and overeating.

If you have not done so read Why We Overeat Part 2: Stress, before diving into today’s blog on sleep. Not getting enough sleep is a big stress on the body!

Getting a good night of sleep is vitally important to overall health and well being. Any efforts in the gym,kitchen or life to look, feel and perform better are stalled by not prioritizing sleep. 

If you are consistently not getting enough sleep there is a good chance you are  overeating as a result, and may not realize it.

What is it that causes us to overeat when we don’t get enough sleep ? Is it due to willpower ? hormones ? or is there an evolutionary advantage that is at odds with our current lifestyle ?  Read more to learn the answer!  

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Sleep Makes It All Better!

Sleep is a basic human requirement, it is mothers nature’s way of forcing our hand into regenerating and rejuvenating.

Our endocrine, neurological, immune, musculoskeletal and digestive systems all rely on sleep to function correctly. This means every system in your body requires good quality sleep work at its best.

A good night sleep has  shown to increase memory and cognitive clarity, improve stress tolerance, better hormonal profiles, increased immune function, improved athletic performance, increased muscle mass, decreased body fat and better mood and energy throughout the day.

If I could  sell the benefits of sleep in a pill form I would be the most successful supplement producer in the world, living on a yacht, sleeping on a bed of gold coins and eating dinosaur eggs for breakfast.

I am here to tell you the health benefits listed above are not going to cost you a dime. All you have to give up is the mindless TV or facebook  and close your eyes when the sun goes down.

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How We Are Designed To Sleep

From the smallest microbes in the soil to the largest elephant on the planet we are all synchronized to the orbit of the planet.

This synchronized orbit controls the light and dark cycles that tell us when we should be awake and when we should go to sleep  known as our circadian rhythm.

We have  special nerve cells in our eyes that detect the level of blue light from the sun. The light from the sun  helps signal to brain, and the body whether we should be wide awake or getting prepared for bed.

As the sun sets at night there is a signal sent to an area of the brain called the pineal gland. That signal tells the brain and body it’s time to start winding down. In preparation for sleep the pineal gland begins secreting the hormone melatonin.

We have a number of uses for melatonin in our brain, but one the biggest jobs is it  decreases the stress hormones that promote being awake and alert.

As we sleep melatonin also enhances the appetite suppressing effect of leptin in the body. Leptin keeps you feeling fed while you sleep, instead of feeling hungry and waking you up. The more you sleep the more melatonin is produced.

Sleep is also a huge driver in the production and timed release of our neurotransmitters. The most notable neurotransmitters regulated by sleep are serotonin and dopamine, and associated with mood regulation.

As you read in Why We Overeat Part 1: Feast and Famine;  dopamine and serotonin both play large roles in driving our behaviors to eat certain foods that hit the reward center in our brain and cause us to want more of that food.

While Serotonin and Dopamine play a role in mood they are also big players in focus, motivation and the ability to concentrate.

Serotonin is converted to melatonin, so by sleeping in alignment with our biological rhythms the body times the release of serotonin so it can be converted into melatonin allowing us to wind down at night and sleep through the night.

We are designed to wake up in the morning light with high cortisol secreted from our adrenal glands.The stress hormone cortisol allows us to be awake, alert and ready to handle stress. We should have declining cortisol throughout the day, with it lowest at night so we can wind down and sleep.

We should also wake up from our sleep hungry with low blood sugar levels, and low insulin (storage hormone) because it has been at least 8 hours since our dinner the night before so blood sugar will be low along with insulin.

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A Light Accomplice

Electricity and light provided a new era in which humans could have greater control over our environment. While it lead to many great advances in society, it came with a cost disrupting our circadian rhythm, and sleep cycle.

Electricity gave us renewable, cheap, never ending light. This light was a  way to control our environment unlike we ever had before.

The biggest discovery before electricity was fire, it allowed us to cook food and control our environment in way unlike before.

When you start to control your environment it will also change you if you are able to adapt. We have adapted to the constant light, but not all adaptations are positive ones.

Long hours of artificial light and constant dense carbohydrates register as the longer days of summer. Summer means it is time to eat more and gain body fat.

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A New Way Of Living

So What happens when we don’t get enough sleep and how does this impact our appetite and overeating tendencies ? I thought you would never ask!

With a lack of sleep you end up with extremely low energy, decreased willpower, lower cognitive function, obesity, type 2 diabetes, depression, fat gain and hormonal dysregulation.

The unending light registers to the body as as long days of summer. From an evolutionary perspective it is an advantage to eat more sugar and carbohydrates to gain fat in preparation for winter.

These days we live in a constant "summer" according to our biological rhythms, that signal us to constantly eat, and gain fat in preparation for reproduction. 

You are staying up late watching TV or checking facebook instead of sleeping, the excess light blue light suppresses melatonin production.

The extra blue light keeps the stress hormone cortisol elevated much later than it should be, causing melatonin to be low. 

This late night artificial light also interferes with conversion of serotonin into melatonin. We need melatonin production to relax and sleep.

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Cortisol And Insulin

High cortisol raises insulin and  means low melatonin. Low melatonin  makes it even more difficult to get to sleep.

The elevated cortisol late into the night means that it will not be raised in the morning when we need it to wake up and be alert. Coffee anyone ?

You use caffeine to help with feeling tired, but it only causes cortisol to stay elevated when it should be reducing throughout the day. This constantly high cortisol makes you feel rushed all the time and in a stressed state.

Cortisol is a blood sugar mobilizer causing higher blood sugar throughout the day. Stress and blood sugar dysregulation both lead to overeating on their own, but there is a lot more to this puzzle.

Our circadian rhythms are supposed to control our insulin production  and stress mechanisms. When we do not sleep enough cortisol stays elevated to help mobilize blood sugar to aid in the stress of being awake longer than we should.

Because you haven’t slept enough the body is less effective at managing blood sugar causing you to be hungry throughout the day and night.

Less sleep means reduced willpower, leading to  more impulsive unhealthy food choices. The thing is you are not hungry, you are tired and stressed out.

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Melatonin, Leptin and Ghrelin

Less sleep means less melatonin production. The length of prolactin secretion depends on melatonin production.

If melatonin is disrupted by too little sleep, prolactin will be secreted during the day instead of night time when it should be. Prolactin secretion has a relationship to the satiety hormone leptin.

Leptin is produced in our fat cells  and is used a dipstick that tells the brain what our body fat levels are, and helps regulate satiety.

Ghrelin works opposite leptin and is the hunger stimulating hormone.  Depending on the season, and our body fat levels our appetite will be adjusted to eat more or less through leptin and ghrelin.

When the production of prolactin is pushed into the day, it suppresses leptin’s signal to the brain. Suppressed leptin registers as a lack of body fat meaning we need to eat more.

As a result the brain increases the cravings for carbohydrates and sweets through Ghrelin. Decreased sleep leads to decreased leptin, and increased ghrelin meaning you are going to have an increased appetite

As you get fatter the leptin from the increasing fat on your body makes you leptin resistant meaning that your leptin receptors have been overloaded and do not work properly.

Without the adequate function of leptin,your appetite stays switched on day and night causing you to overeat constantly.

The signals that you are sending your body is that you are living in a constant state of summer with shorter nights and longer days, and stressed out.

The adaptation to the constant summer is to keep your appetite increased, especially for sweets and carbohydrates.

The problem is living  in summer with no winter to balance out the feast and famine is sending the signal to overeat and store fat year round.

All feast, and no famine to balance the equation has lead us to a state of fat gain, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.

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Sleep Tips

A good starting place to avoid overeating and improve health is to prioritize sleep. When the sun goes down start winding down and have a routine for getting to bed.

Put away the screens at least an hour before bed to start making melatonin and calming down. If you have to be in front of a screen for work get a pair of blue blocker sunglasses. They block the blue lights and allow you to start making melatonin.

Avoid stressful activities and engage in some type of myofascial release such as using a foam roller or lacrosse ball to kick on the rest and digest parasympathetic and help you relax for sleep. Completely black out your room and make your room a little colder, both of these help with deeper more restorative sleep.

If you would like to read on more ways to improve your sleep read my blog post: 10 Ways To Improve Sleep

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These habits are based on getting you to your goal in a sustainable fashion that can be maintained, while keeping you accountable along the way.

 

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