Each time I give a keynote lecture or run our brainSHIFT workplace wellness program, I field a similar set of questions. Without fail, I am asked about:
- Weight gain and why a particular diet isn’t helping
- Are my hormones to blame?
- How to improve focus and stay productive throughout the day
- Lack of daytime energy despite sleeping 8 hours or consuming caffeine
- The link between stress, sleep deprivation, and chronic disease
While these topics may appear unrelated to some, I see a distinct pattern in them – each of these concerns is intimately linked to sleep.
The hustle culture of so many workplaces applauds employees who function on less than five hours of sleep. This mindset of powering through your day while sleep-deprived is setting your mind and body up for failure.
Getting adequate sleep is not just about having enough steam to get through the day. Sleep affects your overall health and well-being. Without it, our bodies deteriorate over time, resulting in a host of short and long-term issues.
And some of them are more serious than you may think. Here are 5 major ways that sleep disorders and insomnia can contribute to poor health.
#1. Lack of Sleep Leads to Weight Gain
If you’re trying to slim down, getting more sleep should be at the top of your list. Studies show that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be obese.
Researchers became interested in this topic when they observed a correlation between increased Body Mass Index (BMI) of Americans and a decrease in the number of sleeping hours and quality of that sleep. This spurned hundreds of studies that sought to uncover the link between sleep and weight gain.
And they found it. As with many of the complexities of the human body, there is no single reason why poor sleep contributes to weight gain. Here’s what we currently know:
- Our hormones play a huge role in how hungry we feel and how our bodies use energy. We also know that poor sleep creates hormonal imbalances in both men and women.
- Sleep deprivation leads to higher gherlin hormone levels, stimulating hunger.
- Shorter sleep drops our leptin levels, leading to more hunger and slower metabolism
- Poor sleep may affect our hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that helps regulate our appetite and caloric expenditure.
- An inadequate amount of sleep or disturbed sleep produces other metabolic changes in the body that can lead to obesity. These metabolic changes include disturbances in circadian rhythm, thyroid hormone production, and build-up of fat deposits in our midsection.
Have you tried challenging diets and attempted to keep up with the latest diet fads? In brainSHIFT, we do not promote the harmful diet culture. Instead, we start with lifestyle changes to promote better sleep, which often ends up affecting our weight!
In 2021, this resulted in an average of 20% improvement in physical health including weight loss, reduction in belly bloating, reduced abdominal fat, and less stress eating in our brainSHIFT cohorts.
#2. Poor Sleep Contributes to Hormonal Imbalances in Men & Women
Achieving proper hormonal balance is one of the main goals of my brainSHIFT protocol. But, research has shown that this is virtually impossible if our house is not built on a solid foundation of sleep.
Sleep is a critical component of our circadian rhythm (our “biological clock”). Our circadian rhythm is not only responsible for the day/night sleep cycle but also the delicate symphony of hormone production and secretion over the next 24-hour period.
The body has 50 different hormones that are responsible for maintaining the function of every organ system in our body. While we sleep, our bodies produce the majority of hormones that regulate everything – from metabolism,immunity, fertility, and stress levels. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies can’t produce these hormones properly.
Multiple studies have found that both men and women who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to experience hormonal imbalances. This can manifest in a variety of ways, including:
- Low libido
- Difficulty conceiving
- Irregular periods and infertility in women
- Erectile dysfunction in men
- Increased anxiety
- Weight gain
If you’re suffering from any of these common concerns, you may have already sought help. Was improving the quality and length of your sleep a part of the treatment protocol?
Probably not. That’s because we have the connection all wrong. Many doctors believe that hormonal imbalances cause poor sleep. This may be true in some cases, but for the majority of people, it is the inverse – poor sleep is contributing to hormonal imbalances.
#3. Sleep Disturbances Impede Our Ability to Focus
When I meet people who are concerned about their inability to focus during the day, I ask about their sleep first. The overwhelming majority of people who suffer from lack of focus or brain fog report that their sleep is not great.
Study after study has shown that those who don’t get enough sleep will express a decline in attention and concentration. Poor sleep leads to lower levels of alertness, which makes it harder to focus and retain information.
The effects of sleep deprivation strongly affect tasks that involve complex thoughts or logical reasoning – exactly the thing that so many of the people in our brainSHIFT community rely on to succeed on a daily basis!
And it’s not just complex thoughts that are affected. Lowered alertness and concentration affect performance behind the wheel, which is bad news for those who drive on a regular basis (and those of us on the road with them).
#4. Disrupted Sleep Results in Lack of Energy
This is one of the more obvious side effects of poor sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep, we feel tired the next day. But the reason behind this is quite fascinating.
Sleep gives our bodies (and busy brains) the opportunity to reduce energy demands for a period of time. When we don’t get enough quality sleep, our overall energy requirements are much higher. But when we consume additional calories to fund the higher energy requirement, our body is not optimized to process it, resulting in weight gain and an increased likelihood of chronic illness.
On top of this, a lack of sleep strains our mitochondria, the cellular powerhouse of energy within our bodies. Mitochondria play a vital role in our energy metabolism and maintaining homeostasis. Poor sleep results in oxidative stress in our mitochondria, resulting in lower overall energy available within the body.
On the other hand, restorative sleep is believed to have a protective effect against oxidative stress. All the more reason to strive towards improving your sleep!
#5. Insomnia & Sleep Disturbances Contribute to Disease and Illness
We are really only beginning to understand the full impact that poor sleep has on our health, but the picture that is emerging is not a pretty one. Unfortunately, prolonged sleep disturbances and insomnia may be responsible for the development of serious and chronic diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
In 2012, researchers at Case Western Reserve University of School of Medicine uncovered a strong link between lack of sleep and the development of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. This study revealed that women who slept less than 6 hours per night were more likely to develop aggressive tumors and experience cancer recurrence.
This study is particularly disturbing because women tend to experience worsening sleep as they go through menopause. It’s vital that women and their healthcare providers take sleep disturbances seriously in order to ensure optimal health as they age.
Sleep loss also contributes to the development of diabetes. Poor sleep increases the body’s energy requirements but reduces the body’s ability to manage its energy stores. One study revealed that sleep loss for five days resulted in a 40% slower insulin response. This may be why those who suffer from insufficient sleep are at increased risk for developing diabetes.
Research has shown a correlation between increased cardiovascular disease and poor sleep. Those who suffer from sleep disorders are more likely to suffer from stroke, heart disease, hypertension, and arrhythmias than those who do not suffer from sleep distrubances.
We believe the connection between poor sleep and cardiovascular disease is related to increases in inflammation. When we don’t get enough sleep, our body produces more inflammatory cytokines. These proteins are known to damage blood vessels and contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease.
Depression & Anxiety
For many years, the assumption was that depression caused sleep distrubances. But recent studies have demonstrated a more complex relationship between depression and sleep.
Today, we understand that poor sleep is not only a symptom of depression but may also be a contributing factor in developing depression. One important study on sleep apnea revealed that symptoms of depression decreased once sleep apnea was treated and patients were able to enjoy restorative sleep.
Studies like this show us that sleep and depression are more interrelated than we initially thought. We have much to learn about how sleep disturbances may contribute to psychiatric disorders.
Just like depression, anxiety is also closely linked to sleep disturbances. Anyone who has suffered from ruminating anxiety understands just how difficult it can be to fall asleep once racing thoughts take over.
But is it possible that ruminating anxiety occurs precisely because our busy brains are preventing proper sleep? As with many of the conditions connected to insomnia and sleep disturbances, we find ourselves questioning whether it was the anxiety or the insomnia that comes first.
This is a partial list of many conditions in which inflammation increases with sleep deprivation, thus making chronic diseases worsen.
Better Sleep Solutions
My aim in writing this post is to encourage you to take the state of your sleep seriously. But I am aware that this may increase your stress and anxiety levels as you now consider the wide-reaching impacts of your poor sleep.
Let me take a moment to reassure you that improving your sleep is possible. I know achieving sleep can feel impossible, especially if you’re brain is scrambled from a lack of sleep. My brainSHIFT protocol provides a practical approach to improving your sleep so that you can benefit from improved overall health, energy levels, and a sense of fulfillment in your life.
To learn more, start by taking my free Busy Brain Test to assess the state of your brain today. Along with your test results, you’ll receive resources to help you immediately take charge of your health and make positive changes in your life.
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2. Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. 2004 Dec;1(3):e62. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062. Epub 2004 Dec 7. PMID: 15602591; PMCID: PMC535701.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535701/
3. What happens when you sleep: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep
4. Why Do We Sleep? https://www.healthline.com/health/why-do-we-sleep