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Wed, Oct. 23

Sleep loss can lead to weight gain

In today's busy world, a good night's sleep is sometimes hard to catch. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Sleep Foundation, more than one-third of adults and up to one-half of infants and children in the U.S. do not get enough sleep. Poor sleep clearly inhibits our ability to think and learn, but also may have more subtle effects, including weight gain.

Many studies have linked poor sleep with increased body weight, but scientists are not sure how burning the midnight oil contributes to the problem. Evidence suggests that shortened sleep affects the release of hormones that control hunger and appetite. Adults who sleep less than six hours a night have higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger, in their blood and lower levels of leptin, which signals a sense of fullness, or satiety. Short sleep can cause daytime fatigue and consequently, reduced physical activity. Poor sleepers may also experience glucose intolerance (an abnormal rise in blood sugar after meals) and increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Over time, these conditions might contribute to weight gain.

A recent study suggests that sleep deprivation may even increase our desire for calorie-packed snacks. This small study, which was published in the journal "Nature Communications," found that people who were sleep-deprived craved foods that were high in calories like cakes and potato chips while those who had at least eight hours of sleep did not. By measuring brain activity, researchers also noticed that sleep deprived participants had less activity in areas of the brain that regulate decision making and more activity in areas that respond to pleasure. In other words, if you are sleep deprived for even one night, your ability to make healthy food choices might diminish while your cravings for junk food may increase.

What contributes to our poor sleeping habits? Among children, media use (TV, video games and the Internet) is often cited as a major cause of irregular sleep. Studies have found that up to 43 percent of preschool-aged children have a television in their bedroom and the number may be higher (up to 71 percent) for children aged 8-18. Bedroom television is associated with delayed and short sleep time as well as difficulty falling asleep. Adult-related or violent TV shows disrupt children's sleep even if watched during the day. Bedtime TV, regardless of location, results in wakefulness and takes the place of more soothing bedtime rituals. Poor sleep among adults may also be related to late-night media use, but can be caused by medical conditions (restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea and others), alcohol and caffeine, lack of exercise, and stress.

Here are a few things you can do to improve your sleep.

• Establish a fixed, regular time to sleep and wake, even if you are retired or without a work or school schedule.

• Avoid alcohol and caffeine for four to six hours before bed.

• Get regular exercise, particularly in the afternoon, to help deepen sleep.

• Practice relaxation exercises before bed. Guided imagery, yoga, and deep breathing relax the body and the mind.

• Establish a pre-sleep ritual like reading or taking a warm bath.

These and other suggestions for a good night's rest can be found at the website for the University of Maryland Sleep Disorders Center:

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