You Snooze, You Lose

By Tracy Olgeaty Gensler, M.S., R.D., Best Life nutritionist

It's bedtime, and although you may be tempted to toss in a final load of laundry or finish the last few pages of that gripping novel, you should hit the hay instead. Most of us have been cutting back on sleep in an effort to squeeze in more activity—the average American is logging just about six hours of sleep a night, even though most adults need a good seven to nine. And the lack of sleep is causing more than just crankiness and difficulty focusing. In fact, skimping on sleep has a real impact on your health and your weight-loss efforts. Want to know why getting more shut-eye should be one of your goals? Read on!

Sleeping to Slim Down
You may focus on how many calories you're consuming or how many minutes you're exercising, but are you also tracking how many hours of sleep you're getting? A recent study from the European Journal of Endocrinology suggests that people who don't get enough shut-eye tend to be hungrier, and they burn fewer calories at rest. Researchers created a sleep debt in volunteers, allowing them to sleep just four hours for six consecutive nights. They measured levels of the hormones ghrelin (which triggers hunger) and leptin (which signals the body to stop eating) before and after. What they found: When the volunteers were short on shut-eye, they had elevated levels of ghrelin and lower levels of leptin. Indeed, other studies show that people who were sleep-deprived and were offered unlimited amount of food ate more than when they were fully rested.

Solving the Sleep Shortage
Later bedtimes (versus earlier wake up times) are the crux of the sleep debt problem, reports the National Sleep Foundation. So, plan backwards: Figure out what time you have to be up and then schedule your bedtime so you get at least seven hours of sleep. Then, start prepping for bed an hour before your chosen bedtime. For example, if 10 p.m. is when you want to be asleep, start wrapping up last-minute tasks at 9 p.m.

You should also set the mood for bedtime. For instance, turn off all lights and use only a dim nightlight (no more than 7 watts), if needed to guide you if you wake during the night. A brighter bulb can sometimes interrupt sleep or make it tougher to fall back asleep if you do wake. Work a night shift? Invest in a sleep mask or light-blocking window shades to make your room nice and dark. Finally, switch off the TV: The sound and light can disrupt your slumber.

You should already be avoiding food or caloric drinks for two hours prior to bedtime—but you might also want to steer clear of water right before bed. If you can, finish your water-drinking at least three hours before bedtime to avoid having to get up at night to use the bathroom. Pay special attention to alcoholic or caffeinated drinks, too. Alcohol can disrupt the stages of sleep and keep you in a lighter stage of sleep where you wake easily, so you might want to steer clear (you should be avoiding alcohol in Phase One anyway). Caffeine can do the same thing—plus it can also make it harder to fall asleep. If you do enjoy caffeinated beverages, experiment with the latest time of day you can have one and still get a decent night's sleep.

Try these hit-the-sack strategies tonight to get a sounder sleep and boost your odds of weight-loss success.