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Jonny Bowden, PhD, is a nationally known expert on weight loss, nutrition and health, and best-selling author of seven books including “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth”, “Living Low Carb:[…]

Insufficient or interrupted sleep releases the hormone cortisol—which triggers our most dangerous fat, and can even reduce lifespans. But there are a number of simple strategies to help you reap the benefits of a full night of sleep.

Question: How unhealthy is a lack of sleep?

Jonny Bowden: Well there is a lot of things to say about sleep, both as an anti-aging strategy, as a weight loss strategy, believe it or not, and as a general strategy for health. I’d consider getting a good night’s sleep is definitely one of the five top strategies you can do to extend you life. And here’s why. A lot of stuff happens during sleep. Biochemicals are replaced, hormones, like melatonin are secreted and growth hormone. These are very, very important for human health.

We have adapted to this electrically based society in which lights are on all the time and computers are available all the time. And if you go back, again, to our heritage as a species, as the human species, we kind of went to bed when the sun went down and we woke up when the sun came back in. And that is closer to our natural biorhythms. So, we’re very sleep deprived. The standard advice is to get seven to eight hours. It’s not bad advice. But I am a big believer in biochemical individuality. I think people can adapt to a fairly wide range of foods and diets and sleep, but I don’t think we do well with four or five hours, and we certainly don’t do well with anxious sleep, interrupted sleep, and I don’t think that sleep gets the credit it should get as an anti-aging strategy.

If you look at these very long-lived cultures where these little pockets are around the world they are called the “Blue Zones” where people routinely live to 100. Now, they don’t take Ambien. They don’t have sleep problems. The sun goes down, they go to sleep. They have a good night’s sleep, they wake up in the morning and I think that goes a long way towards getting us back on track as far as our biology goes, as far as our biorhythms go, the replacement of our hormones, and I think it’s a very, very important and neglected part of health.

Question: What is the link between sleep and body weight?

Jonny Bowden: When you don’t sleep in an ideal way, when it’s restless and you wake up and you’ve got nightmares and you’ve got, or you run to the bathroom 10 times, or any of the things that tend to keep up through the night, you’re body sees that as a stressor. And it responds by releasing a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is the enemy, not only of health, but also of a lean body.

Cortisol sends a message to the body that you’re in an emergency state and you’d better refuel. It also sends a message to the body to store weight around the middle, which as we now know and is pretty much uncontested, that that is the most dangerous kind of fat. It’s the most metabolically active kind of fat, and you know the apple shape is definitely more dangerous in terms of diabetes and metabolic symptoms and heart disease than say the pear shaped distribution of fat. So, cortisol contributes to all of that.

When you’ve under slept, you also tend to overeat. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent the night doing an all-nighter, but the next day you will just grab anything because your body is sending a signal to refuel, refuel, emergency is coming. So, it has a very profound affect on weight. And there’s a lot of studies showing that sleep problems are very related to obesity. The less you sleep, or the more disturbed you sleep the greater you have sleep problems, the more risk there is for developing obesity. So, I think that a good night sleep, a deep restful sleep, without electricity, without computers in the bedroom is a very, very powerful strategy for keeping your weight where you want it to be. And keeping your weight where you want it to be is one of the strategies for living longer.

Question: What can people do to improve sleep?

Jonny Bowden: And there are things you can do to improve sleep. And they’re not expensive, in fact, they don’t cost anything. They’re just some strategies. The first one is, get the electronics out of the bedroom. Now, it’s really hard to get people to do that, it’s even hard for me to get the TV out, but I tell you, sleep improves. You’re bedroom is not a second office. I have bad news, we are not Hugh Heffner. We can’t do everything in bed. The bed really should be for the fun of what the bedroom is for and for rest and relaxation. And the more you can set it up that way. Get a dark room with the right temperature. Take your worries and put them on a list and leave them outside. They’ll be there in the morning. If you can go to bed a half hour early because we found it’s difficult to sleep in as a strategy. It’s much easier to add sleep if you just train yourself to go to bed a little bit earlier. These things are really very powerful strategy for health. For reducing stress, which is also one of the four horseman for aging, and for reducing cravings and for kind of getting you into hormonal balance that is conducive for you keeping your weight where you want it to be and your stress levels where they need to be.