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In 2004 I hosted a special on ABC called Sleep: How to Get the Rest of Your Life. Doctors from the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic put me through a grueling three- day sleep deprivation regimen, to demonstrate how much one's memory, reaction time, and abilities can be impacted by lack of sleep. At the end of my 72-hour sleep drought, I drove around a special course at the Infineon Raceway near Napa to demonstrate the resulting impairment. I was astonished. I was deluded enough to think that I was more in control than I really was, but I drove like someone who was drunk. Even more to my surprise, I also gained three pounds.
Weight gain is one of the most disturbing consequences of lack of sleep. Insufficient sleep tends to disrupt hormones (including leptin) that control hunger and appetite. The optimal amount of sleep for weight control is between seven to eight hours a night. If you sleep fewer than six hours most nights of the week, you can put on up to 11 pounds over six years, say various studies. That may not sound like a big deal, but it can add to the creep of obesity caused by other factors such as stress or lack of activity.
I know there is no substitute for a good night's sleep. In the modern world, we work hard to live life to the fullest, cramming as much as we can into our waking hours, assuming we'll catch up on sleep later. But the reality is, you can't catch up on sleep. Once it's gone, it's gone. Trying to make up for it on the weekend is a poor strategy that usually backfires in a bout of insomnia on Sunday night. Sleep is a daily need and should be treated as such. If you have regular difficulty sleeping, sit down with your doctor and try to figure out what's wrong. Our sleep cycles can be disturbed for a million reasons. Are you under stress? Depressed? Has your life shifted to late dinners out with too much wine and not enough exercise? Have you been traveling across time zones? These can all cause sleep problems.
A lot of people think sleeping pills are the answer—and they can help in the short term—but there are lifestyle changes you can make, too, and that you should try first. Staying away from stimulants like sugar, caffeine, nicotine, as well as avoiding alcohol before bedtime, can make a difference. Avoid stimulation like computer work or exercise for at least three hours before going to bed. But if you exercise earlier in the day, it can improve your sleep at night. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. For me, it's reading a medical journal in bed. And do go to bed at the same time each night. Clean up your sleep habits. You'll look better and feel better.
Excerpted from: Diet Myths That Keep Us Fat by Nancy Snyderman, M.D. @2009, Crown.