Most people acknowledge the crucial role that a nutritious diet and exercising regularly plays in our health and metabolism, but most people don’t know that a good night of sleep is especially important in maintaining your metabolic health. 

What sleep deprivation does to your health

When you’re dealing with something as fundamental as metabolism, dysfunction can lead to a wide variety of symptoms in the short and long term. This is why it’s so important to understand the integral role of sleep in maintaining metabolic health. 

What’s more, getting consistent, quality, uninterrupted sleep is a key factor in preventing chronic diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s, all diseases that are also related to metabolic dysfunction. These conditions are sharply on the rise, together affecting hundreds of millions of Americans, and perhaps not coincidentally, sleep duration has inversely decreased from an average of 9 hours per night a century ago to just 6.8 hours per night today.

But what if we just lose a bit of sleep every once in a while? The truth is, even intermittent sleep deprivation can cause metabolic health problems. During the sleep deprivation condition, the subjects did terribly on the glucose tolerance test: they exhibited signs of insulin resistance and impaired metabolism. The rate at which they were able to clear the sugar out of the bloodstream was 40% slower than when they were well-rested!

The impact of sleep quality

Aside from sleep duration, sleep quality seems to have a big impact on metabolic health.  Why does sleep deprivation lead to problems with glucose, insulin, and metabolic health? It may be because the regulation of glucose and insulin are in part controlled by cortisol (our “stress hormone”), which is naturally lower during the evening and early part of the night. Since cortisol is usually low at night, our glucose levels tend to stay lower and more stable overnight. However, sleep deprivation for just 6 days can cause an increase in cortisol levels, which can cause blood sugar to be elevated. 

Cortisol signals to the body that something “stressful” is happening, and tells the body it needs to get prepared to have energy against this perceived or real threat. To help the body get ready, cortisol mobilizes stored glucose from the liver into the bloodstream. Cortisol also decreases insulin production from the pancreas and reduces insulin sensitivity in the body, meaning that glucose is less likely to be taken up by cells, and remains in circulation.

Aside from cortisol, sleep restriction may cause an increase in growth hormone, which may decrease glucose uptake by the muscles, causing blood glucose to rise. 

Sleep deprivation may make you hungrier, too, leading to an increased likelihood of overeating. A study of 12 healthy young men who had sleep-restricted for 2 days had an elevation in the hunger hormone ghrelin, a decrease in the satiety hormone leptin, and reported increased hunger and appetite, especially for calorie-dense, high carbohydrate foods. 

Inflammation in the body is also closely linked with sleep deprivation, with experiments showing an increase in pro-inflammatory chemicals like IL-6, TNF-a, and CRP, which all happen to be immune markers that are also increased in obesity and type 2 diabetes. There appear to be many shared underlying mechanisms linking sleep loss and metabolic diseases. 

Tips for better sleep

No matter how healthy our diet and exercise routines are, optimal sleep quantity and quality are critical for maintaining metabolic health. Especially in light of our metabolic disease epidemic, and with rampant levels of largely preventable obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, we can feel empowered in knowing that tweaking our sleep schedule and sleep conditions could have a huge impact on our health, productivity, and performance. So how do we get our sleep on track? 

For starters, making sure the bedroom is dark and quiet, the temperature is right, pets and other distractions are out of the room, screens are off, and you have a high-quality mattress are good first steps in sleep hygiene. The harder — but equally important part — is arranging your schedule so that you can carve out an adequate amount of time for sleep: the goal should be 7-8 hours. The research suggests that it’s worth our every effort, and the metabolic payoff is huge. 

What is Sleep Journaling?

Sleep journaling is simply the act of recording your thoughts and feelings a few hours before you fall asleep each night. It may sound similar to keeping a sleep diary, sleep log, or a dream journal, but there are key differences between them.

Sleep diaries and sleep logs are intended to keep track of your sleep habits, rather than your thoughts. A dream journal is exactly what it sounds like: a written account of your dreams or nightmares. All these activities serve their own purposes, and can be very helpful for better sleep depending on your needs.

There is no right or wrong way to approach bedtime writing— as long as you’re able to practice mindfulness and write what you feel, you’re off to a great start. But if you’re not sure where to begin, there are easy ways to help yourself get into the habit of writing.

Let’s start exploring some of the bedtime journaling options together.

Vent Your Day’s Worries and Frustrations

Anger, worry, and frustration are natural and healthy responses to life’s stresses, but it’s important to release them in a healthy way. Journaling is an excellent way to blow off steam and let go of some of the anger you may be feeling. Writing down your angry or unpleasant thoughts can help you make sense of them, as well as provide a sense of catharsis you can’t get from bottling up your emotions.

It’s also worth documenting troubling experiences here so that you can examine why they’re affecting you, and how you can respond to or move past them.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

On the opposite side of the coin, you can keep track of things that make you happy. Reflecting on what brings you joy can help put you in a more positive mood, which can also benefit your physical health, your mental health and lead to better sleep.

Consider a positive experience or event that has happened recently, and be sure to note why it brings you happiness. Some extra positivity in your life can really go a long way in helping you get a better night’s sleep.

Make a To-Do List

Writing out a to-do list may seem overwhelming if you’ve got a lot on your plate, but it really is helpful for quieting anxious thoughts and helping you clear your head each night.

Begin by compiling the unfinished tasks you need to address tomorrow, big or small. Not only does this provide you a clear list of intentions for the following day, but it also helps you keep track of your progress and removes the anxiety of pondering all these tasks as you’re trying to wind down for bed.

You can follow these prompts as much or as little as you want— the important thing is that you are writing!

What type of bedtime ritual do you think will best serve you?