By Ryan Halvorson

Why sleep may be the keeping you from seeing health and fitness success.

When I was a little kid, I hated the news television show 60 Minutes. My parents watched the show like clockwork–pun intended–every Sunday evening from 7 to 8. Aside from possessing zero interest in the show, I despised 60 Minutes because my Sunday evening bedtime was 8–precisely the time that the show would end.

Talk about the most excruciating last hour of my weekend. We were a one-TV household so I had no other choice but to listen to those obnoxious ticks of the clock as they ominously signaled the death of freedom and the inevitability of school week. I still get the heebie jeebies if I pass by the show when I’m flipping channels.

Like any responsible parent, my mom insisted I get to bed early so that I could get my “beauty sleep” and because I would have a “long day tomorrow.” Every week, she fed me those same lines. It wasn’t until later that I learned my parents’ request wasn’t entirely about me. It was one part concern for my wellbeing and one part concern for theirs. My parents wanted rid of my brothers and me because they craved peace and quiet. I digress.

It turns out that my parents were on to something and that this nightly ritual potentially positively impacted my health in a lot of ways.

Advancement Overload

Over the past many years the fitness and nutrition world has questioned advancement. Top experts question our diets and fitness practices and suggest that we’d be healthier and weigh less if we ate (Paleo diet anyone?) and exercised like our ancestors. Now, scientists have started to question our sleeping habits and posit that this one element of our life may play a bigger role in why we can’t lose weight than previously thought.

The theory is this: Back in the day, before the advent of electronic lighting, our ancestors would prime themselves for shuteye not long after the sun went down (Paleo sleep?). Many of our circadian rhythms and hormonal processes were tied to these rituals. However, these days most of us fight these rituals by staying up later than these theorists believe we’re meant to. When we’re not in bed by a certain time, we disrupt the internal processes that help to regulate weight and muscle growth, among other things.

These theories do seem to hold water, because study after study shows that people (note: not all people) who stay up later tend to carry more fat than those who don’t. They add that night owls also eat more–not just because they’re up longer which means more chow time hours, but because their cravings are more substantial the following day. These folks are less likely to engage in physical activity due to feeling fatigued, and generally have poorer health outcomes. Other research has linked late nights with increased cancer risk. The negatives go on and on. All you have to do is Google some variation of “nighttime light” and “obesity” and you’ll find dozens of articles on the subject.

These theorists also suggest that artificial lighting does some wonky things to us internally. This type of lighting delays the production of melatonin, or the hormone that signals the body it’s time to shut down for the night. The longer the delay in melatonin release, the poorer quality of sleep you will have. Some scientists believe that melatonin is also important in regulating blood pressure and blood sugar, and mitigates the damaging effects of free radicals.

If you’ve struggled with your weight, maybe it’s time to look at your sleep habits. Even if you stay up and don’t eat more than you should and you exercise regularly, perhaps you’re unknowingly fighting a secret internal battle due to diminished melatonin production. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt to get to bed a little bit earlier to see how it affects you. People report general improvements in feelings of well-being when they get to bed earlier on a consistent basis. Some researchers have drawn connections between people who stay up late and increased rates of depression.

How to Get Better Sleep

Getting better quality sleep sounds great in theory, but it can be quite a frustrating endeavor. Here are some ways that you can prepare yourself for a good night’s rest:

  • Early to bed, early to rise. Aim to be in bed by 10PM each night. That means weekends, also. Of course, if you agree with the sundown sleep time theory then your bed time should be much earlier.
  • Log off. Shut down electronic light sources–TV, iPad, smart phone–at least an hour before you tuck in. Research suggests that the blue lights emitted from computers and similar technology are the worst kind of light exposure we can experience.
  • Night light. Dim all other lighting an hour before bed. It’s preferable to turn off overhead lighting, and use low-lit table lamps. Candles–which are a more natural source of light–are better. If you’re the type that gets up in the middle of night to take care of business, light your way with a dim red light, which tends to be less damaging to circadian rhythms than other types.
  • Blind eye. Draw the curtains and blinds as soon as the sun goes down. Try to eliminate any unnatural lighting (street lamps, for example) from entering your home–especially the bedroom.
  • Go old school. Instead of reading your Kindle, dim the lights and grab an actual book with paper pages.. Don’t worry, the old wives’ tale about reading in dimmed lights damaging your eyes is hooey.
  • Alarming revelations. If you need an alarm to wake up, use the wind-up kind instead of an iPhone. Sleep experts believe that anything that emits a signal can be disruptive to your sleep so it’s best to keep all iAnythings out of the bedroom. If removing the device from the room gives you the willies then turn it off, or at the very least, switch to airplane mode.
  • Her comes the sun. Shortly after waking, grab your morning cup of coffee or tea and head outside for 5 to 10 minutes. Some experts say that early morning exposure to actual sunlight can help regulate your circadian rhythm. You can still reap these rewards even if the sun is nowhere to be found.

I challenge you to try one or two of these suggestions and let me know how you feel in 2 weeks. Which ones will you try?