Lack of slumber leads to obesity and poor memory

Girl sleeping

As Canadians continue to cut back on the number of hours they sleep each night, two Ottawa doctors are warning of the adverse health effects of not getting enough rest.    

Sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, cardiovascular disease and cogitative errors, according to Dr. Jean-Philippe Chaput, an obesity specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and Dr. Elliott Lee, a sleep specialist at Ottawa’s Royal Mental Health Centre.

In 2010, Statistics Canada reported 46 per cent of Canadians cut down the time they spent sleeping in order to complete other activities.

While no one really knows why we need sleep, both doctors say there is increasingly strong evidence that shows the importance of getting a good nights rest.

“Sleep should be seen as just as essential for good health as diet and physical activity are,” says Chaput.

On average, humans will spend about one third of their lives asleep. Yet both doctors say most people are unaware of the health effects of sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation and obesity

Research shows there is a strong association between lack of sleep and weight gain, says Chaput.

People who sleep less are more likely to have high levels of ghrelin, the hormone that triggers feelings of hunger. Cutting down on sleeping also means there are more hours throughout the day to snack, says Chaput.

While sleep deprivation can lead to greater food intake, it can also cause people to feel more tired throughout the day and reduce their likelihood of exercising.

Some studies have shown sleep deprived people tend to watch more TV and be less physically active that people who get enough sleep. However, Chaput says the effect of lack of sleep on energy expenditure tends to vary from individual to individual.

Obesity develops when energy intake is greater than expenditure, according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

Last year, researchers at the University of British Columbia reported 25 to 30 per cent of all Canadians are obese. This is a growing health concern in Canada and last year the American Medical Association classified obesity as a “disease.”

Discussions about this global epidemic generally tend to focus on just two factors: Diet and exercise. Sleep is often left out of the conversation.

Getting a good nights rest not only prevents excess weight gain, but it also plays a role in maintaining weight loss.

Chaput recommends that weight loss programs start asking participants about their sleep routine and include it in their prevention and treatment plans.

“Sleep needs to be considered part of the overall package for good heath,” says Chaput.

Children and adolescences in particular are more susceptible to the adverse health effects associated with sleep deprivation. Chaput says these two groups require more sleep mainly because their body and minds are still growing.

What happens when we close our eyes for the night?
Students studying

Dr. Elliott Lee says students diminish their memory capacity when pulling all-nighters before exams.

Experts don’t have a concrete answer. They do have a few ideas about what goes on while we sleep, one of which is the role it might play in brain restoration.

Lee says sleep might help clear waste and toxins from the brain, allowing you to feel restored when you wake up.

“People who are sleep deprived also tend to be more irritable, suggesting the brain hasn’t had a chance to properly reset itself,” says Lee.

A lack of sleep can also lead to work performance issues and other problems with tasks that require cognitive function.

Various experiments have shown that memory is consolidated during sleep.  Lee finds it alarming that some students stay up all night studying before an exam because he says getting a good night’s sleep helps the brain remember information.

“Most people don’t realize how valuable a good night’s rest can be because it’s an unconscious process,” says Lee.

People often think they are able to achieve more when they substitute sleep for other tasks, but Lee says getting enough sleep can contribute to an increase in productivity and help people achieve more in less time.

Trend of sleeping less
Elderly sleeping

Researchers say the elderly often have a much harder time falling and staying asleep, which can lead to chronic illnesses.

Both doctors agree that people sleep less nowadays than they did a few decades ago. Chaput says in the last 40 to 50 years, people have cut out about one to two hours of sleep a night.

“I think it becomes very easy for people to cut down their sleep for different things like work or fun activities,” Chaput says. “We know we have twenty-four hours in a day and it’s hard to fit everything in.”

For a while, people believed the amount of sleep needed per night decreased with age. However, recent studies have shown that this is not true and that the need for sleep remains the same throughout adulthood.

What does change as age increases is the ability to get the recommended hours of rest, according to a 2010 study published in Gerontology.

As people get older, they tend to have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep than when they were younger.

Some possible causes for this are associated with factors that often accompany aging such as Alzheimer’s, frequent urination at night and pain from medical conditions like arthritis.

Some studies have shown that the medication used to treat physical and psychiatric illness may also contribute to changes in elderly sleep patterns.

According to the 2010 study, there are significant consequences of poor sleep that put the elderly at greater risk for increased risk for depression, decreased physical functioning, problems with memory and increased risk of mortality.

Given the large aging population in Canada, it is important that more research is done on the topic and health care professionals are aware of these sleep disturbances to allow them to better asses and treat patients.

“There’s no surrogate for sleep,” explains Lee. “There’s nothing doctors can give people or train them to do that would accomplish the functions as sleep does.”

Chaput is currently working on creating a Canadian sleep guide, similar to the national food and physical activity guides. He hopes it will increase awareness and understanding of the importance for getting a good nights rest.

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