Sleep – Why all this fuss?

Women waking up from good night sleep


First, there is conclusive research that constant, inadequate sleep puts you at risk of obesity and diabetes.

In my profession, it’s not all about exercise and eating right to help my clients achieve their goal. It is all about a change in lifestyle. Unfortunately, one crucial factor which is often considered the least by most people is sleep. It is a basic human need and is just as vital to good health as diet and physical activity.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to premature ageing, digestive disturbances, psychological problems, behavioural disturbances and a myriad of chronic diseases, which lowered immunity, insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

One of the most critical factors affecting a person’s health is sleep; In our modern technological age, time is at a premium. Nighttime used to be reserved for relaxation and sleep; however, people all over the world now work, travel, exercise and socialise during the night time hours.

A good nights sleep allows the body to wake up fresh and invigorated, ready to face the coming day’s challenges. On the other hand, too little sleep results in daytime drowsiness, inability to concentrate, increased risk of accidents and reduced overall productivity and performance

Sleep Cycle

Before seeing what we can do to have good nights sleep, we first need to understand what happens to our body while asleep and how important it is.

Often sleep is considered a passive activity, but while the body rests, the brain is active. During sleep, the body passes through 5 stages: stages 1, 2, 3, 4 and REM (rapid eye movement).

A complete cycle is thought to take between 90-110 minutes.


The Science

The body is naturally set to a 24-hour clock, known as the ‘circadian rhythm’ from the Latin ‘circa dies’ (about one day). However, sunlight provides a potent regulator resetting the internal clock in line with the 24 hours. The internal biological clock is fundamental to the survival of all living organisms, influencing hormones that play a role in sleep and wakefulness, metabolic rate, and body temperature. The source of this internal biological clock is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN)


The SCN controls essential functions that are synchronised with the sleep/wake cycle, including melatonin levels, body temperature, hormone secretion, urine production and changes in blood pressure. A powerful example of the biological clock is out of sorts with ‘jet lag’. After crossing several tie zones, the body’s internal biological clock is out of sorts with the new time zone often resulting in uncontrollable drowsiness throughout the day.

Many other factors influence the amount and the quality of sleep, including:

  • Age-infants need more (12-14 hours) compared to adults
  • Caffeine –coffee, tea and cola drinks
  • Alcohol – inhibits deep sleep
  • Smoking – experience withdrawal during the night
  • High-stress levels
  • Certain foods
  • Some medications – diet pills, decongestants and antidepressants


Too much sleep is also associated with obesity and other chronic diseases! So what’s perfect?


It depends. Everyone is different and some lucky people (though VERY few) only need 5-6 hours/night to be fully functional. For the rest of us, It is generally agreed that most adults need between 7-8 hours a night.

Getting too little sleep creates a sleep debt (which is like being overdrawn at a bank). Eventually, the body will demand that the debt be repaid. If after lying down, a person falls asleep within 5 minutes, then they are probably sleep deprived.

Consequently, judgement, reaction time and many other physiological functions are impaired. However, it is common for people to become accustomed to a sleep-depriving schedule. This is an essential consideration for those workers who work long hours or night time shifts such as firefighter, industrial workers and doctors.


How it Affects the body

When assessing my clients and going through body composition analysis, many problems crop up, and a lot can be linked with harmful sleeping patterns.

Insulin Resistance

Increased desire to eat high carbohydrate foods

Sleep loss induces cravings for high-carbohydrate foods. As such, insulin resistance is made worse because the pancreas has to secrete even more insulin to take care of your sweet tooth craving.

Increased cortisol

Sleep deprivation increases the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with obesity, high blood sugar, and lowered immunity.

Furthermore, cortisol acts as a stimulus to BREAK DOWN MUSCLE, to raise the blood sugar.

Lower Leptin

Leptin is a hormone that tells your body:

“You’re too fat, stop eating and burn more energy (Calories).”

As a result, appetite diminishes, and the body naturally burns more calories, mostly through non-exercise activities1,2.

But if you don’t get enough sleep, leptin levels decrease. Low leptin levels tell the body that energy levels are low. As a result, appetite increases!


Increased Ghrelin

It is easy to think of ghrelin as a hormone that is precisely the opposite of leptin. Increased ghrelin tells your body:

“You are not getting enough energy; eat more and move less!”

If you wake up too early, this ghrelin drop will not happen, and you may wake up hungrier than you should be, in addition to all the other obesigenic fun already described.

Combined, the ghrelin and leptin changes after a couple of days of crappy sleep is enough to make you overeat, no question.

The evidence in support of sleep providing health and longevity is overwhelming and should be considered as one of the essential components to any one’s health regime and overall lifestyle intervention programme. Sleeping patterns can easily be assessed using a sleep diary.


The following strategies can be offered to improve sleeping patterns:


  • Set a schedule or time for sleep
  • Exercise (however, avoid exercise to close to bedtime)
  • Avoid activating the brain before bedtime
  • Avoid watching TV in bed (better still remove it altogether)
  • Take a warm bath
  • Reduce stressful activities
  • The bedroom should be in complete darkness (blackout blinds)
  • Remove bedside digital display clocks
  • Limit drinking caffeine less than six hours before bed
  • Avoid nicotine, and alcohol (alcohol and nicotine disturb sleep)
  • Relax before bed
  • Don’t go to bed too full or too hungry
  • Sleep until sunlight
  • Control the room temperature (lower temperature improves sleep)


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