Updated: Oct 22
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I know that YOU know that it’s important to get good sleep. We hear it from our doctors, we read about it in health articles, we know it instinctually, but does anyone actually do it? Mothers are arguably the most sleep deprived demographic out there, and it’s not just during the baby stage. I’ve had many conversations with mothers of older kids that STILL haven’t gotten back to that pre-baby sleep quality, and I’m one of them. How do we get it back? I want to sleep, I NEED to sleep, but I’m up several times a night. I’ve even gone so far as to log my pre-bedtime activities on the rare nights that I do fall asleep and stay asleep, in hopes that I will find the golden ticket. I have not. In fact, I’m convinced that our brains are simply hard wired to wake up at a moments notice and deal with a vomiting toddler or whatever other circus has come to town at 3am. Luckily, I do not find myself tired during the day, so it isn’t yet affecting me too much. But many of you are tired, and I wanted to put together a science-y guide to help you understand your bodily processes, so that MAYBE a lightbulb will turn on in someone and we can all figure it out together.
Alrighty, here we go: The researchers know that lack of sleep and sleep disturbances have negative effects on both physical and mental health. Metabolism is the one effect I want to focus on today, because many of us have trouble with both hormone regulation and insulin resistance, and I’m no scientist, but it looks like there’s a connection here. Could it be, that women’s health studies are missing the most logical factor of all??? Mothers are chronically sleep deprived. Sleep deprived people do not get the restoration of their brain that they need (HELLO brain fog!), nor do they get the tissue repair, hormone regulation or energy restoration that the rest of the population thinks is soooooo easy. (Bender et al., 2018)
Correlation Between Sleep and Metabolism
I don’t want to focus too heavily on the impact of fat loss efforts here, but in this study (Nedeltcheva et al.), they looked at two groups of people, one of which is making an effort to lose weight and IS getting enough sleep, and the other is making an effort to lose weight and IS NOT getting enough sleep. Not surprisingly, the sleep deprivation group had less fat loss overall and an increase in muscle loss as well.
I want to also point out that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, because this study by Patel et al. shows that sleep deprived people are more likely to engage in behaviors that contribute to weight gain, like eating more calories than necessary and being less active. We all know this through our own experiences… it’s obvious that an exhausted person is going to eat the easiest thing they can and do as little as possible. We also know that it doesn’t help the root cause of the situation, but it’s human nature. I wonder how much money Patel et al. got to perform this study of the obvious. Hmmmm…..
Understanding the Role of Sleep in Metabolic Functions
OK, here’s more science-y stuff. When we are sleeping, our body regulates glucose metabolism, insulin sensitivity, appetite regulation and hormone production. If we are not getting enough sleep, anyone can assume that all of these processes are going to suffer. If you look at glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, when these things are off, and more importantly, when they are CONSISTENTLY off, is there any wonder why diabetes rates are so high?
Let’s also look at two hormones that regulate appetite. Ghrelin (stimulates appetite) and Leptin (tells your brain that you’re full) are both pretty important factors for metabolic health. Inadequate sleep makes the ghrelin go UP and the leptin go DOWN, which is going to make us crave high carbohydrate foods, and we’re going to eat more of those foods than under normal circumstances. (Isaieva & Karmazina, 2022)
Effects of Sleep Deprivation
What’s the magic number, you ask? I have two studies here. One says that people that sleep less than 5 hours per night are going to have the most negative effects. (Spiegel et al.) Our buddy Patel et al. says anything less than 6 hours per night.
Impact of Sleep on Hormonal Balance and Metabolism
I have a few more hormones (fasting peptide YY and glucagon-like peptide 1) that are affected by inadequate sleep, and all of these contribute to not feeling full, craving high calorie foods, and ultimately weight gain. More importantly than listing all the hormones, we’re creating insulin resistance by changing the normal insulin response, which then leads to reduced glucose tolerance.
A more well known hormone is cortisol. We don’t want extra cortisol in our system either. Cortisol increases your appetite AND promotes the accumulation of belly fat specifically, and there’s a whole different area of research that is for another article.
Sleep Optimization for Improved Overall Health
I’m trying to avoid the standard sleep hygiene advice that people talk about all the time, because as mothers, most of us simply CANNOT follow these ideas. It’s a great thought in theory, but we have many more things to consider… therefore: a list of sleep hygiene tips ADAPTED for Motherhood:
Stick to a consistent sleep schedule. Let’s try not to stay up until midnight scrolling on social media because it’s the only time we’ve had to ourselves all day. Instead, can we commit to a reasonable 8 hour sleep schedule and time block an hour for ourselves earlier in the day? Naptime or during sports practice? If not (I know I can't), can we commit to less scrolling for one week, go to bed at our allotted time and re-evaluate if the change is worth it?
Make your Bedroom a Sleeping Paradise: Dark, quiet, cool temp. This one is hard for me because I need a TV on in order to sleep and I know it’s terrible, but I cannot overcome this just yet. Many people have recommended to turn our bedrooms into a beautiful oasis with nice sheets, blankets, make sure it’s nice and clean so there’s no stress or “I have to organize this” tasks living in there.
No stimulants before bed. I’d take this one further and say no stimulants after 1pm, but caffeine, nicotine, etc don’t do anything for sleep quality. Alcohol is also terrible for sleep. Side note: have you noticed the alcohol free trend taking over the social medias? This is one health trend I can get on board with! So many people are making the conscious choice to give it up, and everyone is saying how amazing they feel. I gave it up about 3 years ago and I cannot put into words how beneficial it has been for my brain health and my overall well-being.
Create a bedtime routine. Firstly, if you don’t already do this, create a solid bedtime routine for the kids and practice that for a while, because that will only help their development. THEN, create one for yourself that doesn’t include your phone (I know, I need to take my own advice), and DOES include: a soothing skin care routine, perhaps a meditation or moon salutation practice, a shower or bath, reading a book, etc. The key here is to force yourself to do this stuff consistently, and eventually your established habits will start signaling to your brain that it’s time for sleep, and it will be easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. This school of thought comes from the book, Atomic Habits, where the author talks about habit stacking. No need to read the whole book, you can look up habit stacking and you’ll get the main points.
Last recommendation that is true to my heart…. We really need to prioritize exercise. I know it’s difficult to fit it into the schedule, but even a couple walks per week is a good start! Bodyweight exercises like squats, pushups, crunches, etc are all great and require no equipment. Bonus: your kids can do that stuff with you, and they get the benefit as well. Exercise does so many good things for your body and brain. It reduces the cortisol we were talking about earlier, it is more effective than pharmaceuticals for depression and anxiety, and people that exercise regularly are happier and more fulfilled.
All in all, what we have here is a cycle. Just like so many health related issues, this and that leads to this and then this and then can contribute to that. It’s up to you where you stop the cycle to improve each trickle down problem. You can keep mitigating the symptoms or you can try to solve it at the root, but please know that your hardships and challenges are real, and we all get it!
Lots of Love,