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Vary Your Sleep Pattern, Sabotage Your Diet

There has been a lot of information in the news recently that links the amount of sleep that we get with our overall health, and it comes as no surprise in our diet-obsessed culture that the articles that are getting the most attention are the ones that explain the relationship between sleep quality and quantity to gaining weight. Aside from the association between sleep deprivation and obesity there have also been reports that speak to the difficulty in losing just a little bit of weight. These articles provide answers to those who are trying to lose five or ten pounds and who can’t seem to succeed — maybe if you just get an hour more sleep per night, your body will stop working against you is what they all seem to be saying.

Now comes a report that indicates that, at least in teens, the question is less about how much sleep we get but in how consistently we get the same amount of sleep. The study was conducted by Fane He, an epidemiologist at Penn State University College of Medicine, and presented at the American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle 2015 meeting. He and his colleagues followed a cohort of teenagers to see if there was a link between their sleep patterns and their caloric intake, and what they found was that every single hour of difference in sleep quantity on a night-to-night basis made a considerable difference in both the number of calories that they took in, but also in the quality of those calories. The most uneven sleep patterns resulted in the highest intake of fat and carbohydrates, as well as in more snacking.

Combining this information with previously conducted studies into the effect that sleep has on the production of hormones linked to appetite is eye opening. Those earlier studies have shown metabolic changes in the sleep deprived, lowering levels of the hormone leptin and leaving the feeling hungrier. There are also documented changes in how well the body is able to break down glucose. But in this study the teens were not sleep deprived or oversleeping — they all got an average of seven hours of sleep, with some sleeping longer and some sleeping shorter. But the differences were seen within the variations that the individual made within their own schedule, doing what has been referred to as yo-yo sleep … getting too little sleep one night and then making up for it the next day, or staying up later or sleeping later on the weekends.

According to Dr. Nathaniel Watson, president-elect of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and co-director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center, there are a number of things that contribute to getting quality sleep, but the top three are getting to bed and arising at appropriate times, sleeping long enough, and not being impacted by a sleep disorder. Though much of the public focus lies in the number of hours of sleep, experts say that we should be paying more attention to the impact of “social jet lag”, the habit of letting the demands of our lives push our sleep schedules to and fro, and thus upsetting our internal rhythms. “We live in a society of yo-yo sleep in which people sleep less because of social or work demands, then try to catch up,” he says. “There haven’t been a lot of studies that looked at what kind of impact this has on our health, but teenagers may be particularly susceptible to social jet lag than older adults, and this study assessed that.”

 Earlier studies have shown metabolic changes in the sleep deprived, lowering levels of the hormone leptin and leaving the feeling hungrier Earlier studies have shown metabolic changes in the sleep deprived, lowering levels of the hormone leptin and leaving the feeling hungrier

Why are teens’ schedules being pulled to and fro to such a great degree? It may not be what you think. Though most of us envision our teens lying in their beds late into the night, entering text into their tablets or smart phones or watching video content until they’re bleary, research has shown that the problem may have more to do with the various stresses that teens are under, as well as with their biology. Teens are physiologically unable to fall asleep as early as younger children or adults – their bodies undergo a shift in its internal rhythm that keeps them up until closer to eleven each night, or even past midnight. That same shift also means that they are naturally programmed to sleep until nine or ten in the morning, something that is impossible with today’s school schedules, in which most high schools start at seven in the morning. This means that they are suffering sleep deprivation throughout the week, and that drives them to sleep in on weekends, thus forcing their body into a type of jet lag every single weekend. A shift of as little as one hour is enough to make the difference in caloric intake, and in truth most teens are pushing their weekend schedules off by as much as two or three hours.

The direct impact of the sleep variability, beyond proving to be an aggravation to parents who want their teens up and out of bed on beautiful Saturday and Sunday mornings, may be that when kids aren’t getting enough sleep on weekdays and find themselves feeling sluggish, they are more likely to sit around inside and eat rather than going out and doing something active. Likewise, when teens are staying up late on weekends they sit around and snack, and then after sleeping in, they wake up and have time to eat too many calories in sugar and carb-laden breakfasts.

The study by Fan He suggests that rather than parents, physicians and researchers focusing so much time and attention on getting teens to sleep more, they may do better to focus on the consistency of their sleep pattern, at least in terms of their weight and risk of obesity. “Instead of focusing on how much we sleep, we also need to pay attention to maintaining a regular sleep pattern,” he said.

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