How Not Getting Enough Sleep Messes You Up, Part 1

Not getting enough sleep will mess your body and your mind up in many ways. A study published in Current Biology a few days ago (shown just above) provides evidence that not getting enough sleep leads people to snack more late in the evening, and makes them more insulin resistant (=reduces their insulin sensitivity). Getting more insulin resistant is bad because the body has to produce more insulin to overcome the resistance and make sure blood sugar is on track, and that extra insulin has some unpleasant side effects. See “Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon” and “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid.”

In addition to the possibility that the extra snacking helped lead to more insulin resistance, there is a suspicion that the sleep loss itself, even apart from the extra snacking, might have worsened insulin resistance. Demonstrating that would require a design that controlled the food intake of those in the experiment. What is known is that various hormones and other blood proteins get altered when people are put on a simulated night shift in an experiment—including glucagon, which, very roughly, is a kind of “anti-insulin” in its effects on the body.

Another crucial finding of the experiment was that after depriving people of sleep during the week, letting them sleep as much as they wanted on the weekend wasn’t enough to undo the bad effects. The mbg health article shown at the very top goes too far by saying this means “you actually can’t catch up on sleep.” What if you can catch up on sleep, but it takes a night of sleeping all that you want to make up for each night that you were only allowed to sleep five hours? Then two nights when you can sleep all you want wouldn’t be enough to make up for five nights of sleeping only five hours. People who think they can catch up on the weekend for way too little sleep five nights in a row not only want to be able to catch up on sleep, they want an unreasonably good deal in catching up on sleep! Or they may believe that the total amount of sleep they will end up doing on the weekend is more than happens even with serious sleeping in.

Many workaholics believe that sleeping less will allow them to get more done. This is far from obvious as a long-run proposition. If the combination of make-up sleep needed and reduced effectiveness from sleep deprivation reduces productivity by a little more than one hour for every hour of lost sleep, then there is no long-run productivity advantage from sleeping less in order to get things done. Staying up would then be a costly way of doing intertemporal substitution: shifting productivity from later to now. On the other hand, getting a lot of sleep in advance before a time when you know you need extra productivity could yield multiple benefits.

What if you can’t sleep despite having allowed plenty of time? Here is a set of suggestions in another mgb health article:

  1. Get the phone out of the bedroom.

  2. To avoid a dip in blood sugar in the middle of the night, cut down on sugar and refined carbohydrates, replacing them with things like almond butter or coconut oil.

  3. Think about your caffeine consumption.

  4. Try an earlier bedtime.

  5. Be strategic about light.

  6. Think about your alcohol consumption.

  7. Take magnesium glycinate for sleep issues at home. A chamomile tea ritual can help. Use melatonin to deal with jet lag.

  8. Try jujube. (But tell your doctor if you do, because it can interact with other medications.)

  9. Experiment with GABA.

  10. Wind down.

See the article (“Having Trouble Sleeping? Can't Stay Asleep? These 10 MD-Approved Tips Are Actually Proven To Work” by Ellen Vora) for more details.

I do sometimes have some mild insomnia, myself. I do a few things to help with that. First of all, many of the things mentioned by Ellen Vora are a given for me: I am already eating lowcarb and love nut butter and coconut milk (which has coconut oil in it), my early life Mormon background has led me to avoid caffeine and alcohol, my early life before cell phones were invented makes me less tied to a cell phone, and I decided to keep my bedtime at midnight Eastern time when I moved to Colorado, which is in Mountain Time. Also, having a short eating window means I am typically not eating close to bedtime, so I don’t have to worry about a heavy stomach keeping me from getting to sleep. Second, I try not to let work be the very last thing I do at night. I try to watch TV or do something else to wind down at the end of the night. Third, I try to keep things relatively dark later on in the evening. Avoiding screens would be too much of a hardship, but I am able to keep the rooms I am in quite dark except for the screens. Fourth, if I wake up too early in the morning, I have two types of “quasi-sleep” that I use to get additional rest even if I can’t fall back asleep: listening to an anti-anxiety audio file and doing Transcendental Meditation. (Transcendental Meditation is one of the very easiest forms of meditation. It is much more appropriate for quasi-sleep than other, more effortful forms of meditation.) Fifth, if thinking about things I need to do is keeping me awake, sometimes I let myself go ahead and do them. But otherwise, if I am awake in the middle of the night, I try to do something low key like watching TV. Finally, I try to take any problems I have sleeping in stride without getting too alarmed; getting alarmed usually makes it even harder to sleep!

I think our culture is in the middle of a transition toward valuing sleep more. That is a very good thing. Don’t wait to be pulled along by the zeitgeist, though. The sooner you start getting enough sleep, the better off you will be.

Don’t miss my other posts on diet and health:

I. The Basics

II. Sugar as a Slow Poison

III. Anti-Cancer Eating

IV. Eating Tips

V. Calories In/Calories Out

VI. Wonkish

VIII. Debates about Particular Foods and about Exercise

IX. Gary Taubes

X. Twitter Discussions

XI. On My Interest in Diet and Health

See the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see “Diana Kimball: Listening Creates Possibilities and my post "A Barycentric Autobiography.