Sleep more, weigh less
The less you sleep, the higher your risk of obesity. And some experts believe that sleep is the number one factor when it comes to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
Whether the blame lies with a sedentary lifestyle, a dependency on sugar or a reluctance to face reality, there is no getting away from the fact that we are getting bigger. And the latest figures from the WHO, predicting that Ireland will be the fattest nation in Europe in 2030, is more than a little shocking.
But while everyone is aware that a combination of exercise and healthy eating will make a great difference to both our own and our children's waistlines, it may come as a surprise to learn that irregular sleep patterns can also add weight to the growing problem of obesity.
New research has shown that getting enough shut-eye will help us to wake up feeling refreshed which in turn motivates us in the direction of a healthy breakfast while at the same time giving us the energy to factor some exercise into our daily routine.
Dr Cliodhna Foley Nolan is director of human health and nutrition with Safefood. She says in order to try and reverse the WHO prediction we urgently need to address the problem by targeting every aspect of our lives, which includes the amount and quality of sleep we are getting each night.
"There is research which shows an increased risk of weight gain in adults with short sleep duration," she says. "And while work is still ongoing to find out how sleep affects our metabolic and hormonal patterns, from a behavioural point of view, as adults, we know full well how lack of sleep can lead to a lack of willpower and energy, which affects our food choices and our physical activity levels.
"Shorter sleep duration can affect the hormones that regulate our hunger and appetite leading to increased food consumption, choosing energy-dense snacks and changes in our energy expenditure. Sleep restriction can also lead to daytime fatigue and reduced energy levels overall," adds Foley Nolan.
Weight-loss expert, Dr Eva Orsmond, agrees and says she believes sleep to be the number one factor when it comes to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
"As far as losing weight is concerned, I think sleep is the most important thing," she says. "If you are tired, it stands to reason that you will try to keep your energy levels up by snacking and eating more.
"Also, if you are actually trying to lose weight, you will not have the strength required to keep motivated and will be less resistant to temptation."
Dr Eva, who has weight-loss clinics in Dublin, Galway and Kilkenny, says despite claims to the contrary, it isn't possible to lose weight by just going to bed, but between the sheets is definitely the best place to start.
"Nobody burns many calories while simply sleeping, but the more quality hours you have each night, the more energy you will have the following day," she says. "We have a saying in Finland which translates as 'sleeping is like putting money in the bank' - the more you invest, the better the outcome.
"We have a big problem with obesity in Ireland and my advice to anyone wanting to shift a few pounds is to firstly look at their sleep hygiene - by that I mean they should try to ensure they go to bed at the same time every night, even if it means reading a book or listening to music before falling asleep.
"I would also say don't go to bed shortly after eating, don't stay up too late on weekends and while it might sound obvious, make sure your bed linen is clean and comfortable and your pillows and mattress is of good quality. With all these things in place, you will have taken the first step towards a healthier and slimmer you."
Lack of sleep has also been shown to affect the younger generation with an analysis of 11 international studies showing that children with shorter amounts of sleep had an increased risk of overweight and obesity than children who had longer amounts.
"Based on research conducted with parents, newborns and infants would appear to be getting the recommended hours of sleep for their age," says Foley Nolan.
"However, two-thirds (63pc) of parents told us that they don't think their child is getting enough sleep and this is a concern, especially given new research showing an association between sleep and weight in children."
Tara and Ciaran Killeen live in Kildare with their three sons: Conor (11), Sean (8) and Darragh (4). They recently took part in an experiment to find out how sleep can affect children's health, but as their children have relatively healthy lifestyles, they weren't expecting any drastic results.
"I really didn't think that the boys had bad sleep patterns but during the week, it was often difficult to get them out of bed in the morning," says Tara.
"Conor usually stayed up the latest, Sean is very energetic so as soon as he stopped moving, he would fall asleep and Darragh used to get into our bed every night.
"Their diet is quite good and they are all very busy with sport so they get enough exercise. Also, we don't let them play computer games during the school week, so I thought they had a healthy enough lifestyle already."
The Safefood experiment suggested that Tara kept a record of her children's bedtime routine for three weeks. It encouraged her to restrict screen-time and not allow children to have access to TV or a computer for at least 40 minutes before bed. It also suggested setting times for going to bed and sticking to them. The family found these restrictions difficult in the beginning, but soon adapted to the new routine.
"I think the boys really missed watching TV in the evenings," she admits. "They felt it was a wind-down time for them and in a way it was for us too because in a house with three boys, silence is rare unless there is a TV or console on somewhere.
"But they adapted very well to the new rules and really stuck to them. Darragh thrived on his star chart - getting one if he stayed in his bed and got another star for staying there all night - so this was a big success."
The mother-of-three says while the routine definitely helped the boys to sleep better, she didn't notice any difference in their diet - however, she admits that by being less tired herself, she was less likely to reach for the biscuit tin.
"After the three weeks, we noticed that the boys were more willing to go to bed at their usual time," she says. "Also, Darragh has stopped coming into our bed, which means we all get a good night's sleep.
"We didn't really notice a difference in their appetite but I know that if I don't get enough sleep, I will always look for a sugar hit - there have even been times that I have eaten chocolate for breakfast.
"So it makes sense that if you have a good sleep, your diet and lifestyle will improve."
Dr Fiona Healy, consultant general and respiratory paediatrician at Temple Street Children's University Hospital, agrees, and says lack of sleep has a direct impact on the health of the future generation.
"Unfortunately, I'm seeing more children with weight issues where lack of sleep or not getting enough quality sleep are significant factors," she says.
"From a physical point of view, sleep helps children's bodies to grow and develop while for brain and emotional growth, it also gives them time to make sense of their day.
"While parents may think their children are getting enough sleep, the reality is they're probably not
"What also doesn't help is that children's sleep is increasingly delayed or interrupted by the number of multiple screens in the home - whether that's smartphone, laptop, tablet or television. This screen-time is having a negative effect on children's sleep and as a consequence, their health and weight."
So, while we are all aware that diet and exercise are essential when it comes to losing weight, sleep is also an important factor.
Dr Foley Nolan has a few tips on how both adults and children can establish a better bedtime routine, see below.
How to fall asleep in 60 seconds
A deep-breathing trick can make insomniacs drop off to sleep in under one minute, a health expert has claimed. The method involves making a loud whooshing noise with the mouth then holding the breath in stages.
Called the '4-7-8' method, it has been pioneered by the US sleep expert Dr Andrew Weil, who claims that the technique works by calming the mind and relaxing the muscles.
Stress, computers and taking work home are often blamed for the lack of quality rest.
Regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions including obesity, heart disease and diabetes - and it shortens your life expectancy.
But Dr Weil, founder of the Arizona Centre for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, claims a simple alteration to normal breathing could be the answer.
"This comes from yoga and in yoga breathing you have to keep the tip of the tongue behind the upper front teeth," he said.
" You breathe in through your nose quietly and blow air out forcefully through your mouth making a whoosh sound. It takes all of about 30 seconds so there is no excuse for not doing it.
"It produces a very pleasant altered state of consciousness.
"You may not get that the first time you do it but it's one of the benefits of practising."
The trick is holding the breath for four seconds, breathing out then holding for seven seconds.
"After that, exhale completely for a count of eight. The steps are then repeated between two and four times.
Dr Weil says it works because it allows the lungs to become fully charged with air, allowing more oxygen into the body, which promotes a state of calm.
"You have to do this two times a day religiously. It will become a wonderful way to help you fall asleep.
"You can do it more often throughout the day," added Dr Weil.
"After about four to six weeks you will see wonderful changes in your body."
The method is based on an ancient Indian practice called pranayama, which means regulation of breath, and is used widely in yoga and pilates.
Breathing deeply has been proven to affect the heart, the brain, digestion, the immune system and even the expression of genes.
Research has shown that breathing exercises like pranayama can have immediate effects by altering the pH of the blood, or changing blood pressure.
But more importantly, they can be used as a method to train the body's reaction to stressful situations and dampen the production of harmful stress hormones.
- Sarah Knapton
Sleep tips for kids
• Set a regular bedtime routine
• Having a wind-down time of at least 40 minutes is really important in getting ready for bed, as it helps you all relax in the evening so plan ahead.
• Encourage children to be active throughout the day but try not to be active just before bed
• Try to have main meals two hours before bedtime
• A warm bath can help relax children and help them get ready for rest
• Create a sleep-friendly environment that is dark and quiet without TV or any other devices
• For younger children, read a story with themor listen to some gentle music Adults and older children should read a book or magazine to wind down
Health & Living