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Bestselling author and health expert Shawn Stevenson has given a TEDx talk about the health benefits of chocolate and founded The Model Health Show, a top-rated nutrition and fitness podcast on iTunes. In his bestselling book, Sleep Smarter, he reveals how important good sleep is for maintaining a healthy diet, exercise program and achieving long-lasting weight loss.
In the book, Stevenson covers everything from what constitutes as a good night's sleep, which he says is based far more on the quality of sleep rather than the number of hours, to why prescription medication likely isn’t the solution to your sleep issues. He shares his research about which foods are the best for sleep, why what time you exercise directly correlates with how well you sleep, and how checking your smart phone before bed could keep you up for an three extra hours.
What is the problem with some of the common advice for getting a good night sleep, such as sleeping for a minimum of eight hours?
Well first of all, it's just too cookie cutter. All of us are so different. Our metabolisms are different, our hormone cycles are different, we’re at different points in our life, we have different schedules. Also, it creates a bit of a stigma too. You know that we’re already messing up if we’re not getting “blank” hours of sleep...It just creates more stress around it. Everybody is different, we’re all unique, and our sleep should match up to that, instead of us trying to find a cookie cutter [idea] of what sleep should look like, and that’s why I really focus on the quality, and not the quantity, per say.
Why don’t you recommend taking medication to sleep through the night?
Well, it’s not that I don’t recommend it. I don’t recommend it first, or second, or third, or fourth, it’s way down the line....What we need to do is to address the underlying cause of the sleep disruption, instead of masking it with a drug. That inability or poor quality sleep is biochemical and biomechanical feedback from our body that we need to change something, and we don’t want to tamper with that. We don’t want to mess up our body’s alarms and indication system when there are problems. Because, if we do that, we’re just going to throw the whole system off.
Do you recommend any supplements? Why or why not?
I do recommend supplements, but as a supplement, be true to what the word is, and not the solution…what I do recommend, first and foremost, is magnesium supplementation. It's the most effective right off the bat for a lot of people. There’s a study done in the book, and they found that individuals that are dealing with chronic sleep issues across the board are deficient in magnesium, and by getting those levels back up, they’re able to optimize their sleep cycles to the degree that they were sleeping as normally as people without chronic sleep disorders. Magnesium is really important; it’s a calmative mineral. It's responsible for over 300 biochemical processes in the body, so that basically means that your body can’t do 300 things, unless it has enough of it.
What is the link between sleeping well and weight loss?
There are so many different studies, and I couldn’t put them all in the book. But the one that really just grabs you by the collar – like “look at this" – was done by the University of Chicago. They had dieters, and they basically put them on a strict diet, counting calories, monitoring fat and they were able to get eight hours of sleep at a particular phase of the study. They tracked the results. In another part of the study, they had them on the same exact diet, counting calories, the whole thing, very rigorous, same exact diet as the other time, but now they're sleep depriving them. They can only get 5.5 hours of sleep. What they discovered was that by simply getting three more hours of sleep, in this particular study, the participants were able to lose 55 percent more body fat, simply by sleeping more.
How can massage therapy improve sleep?
Massage has been utilized for thousands of years in medical practice, so some of the benefits as far as sleep is concerned…it's the activation again of the parasympathetic nervous system. You’re going to get an increase in serotonin, which will precurse the melatonin. You’re going to get an increase in oxytocin, which is clinically proven to counteract the effects of cortisol on the body. Again, cortisol is kind of an anti-sleep hormone. Also, endorphins. That’s the other thing – those feel-good neurotransmitters that help you to relax and to let go.
What is connection between diet and sleep?
Of course, the chapter in the book, “Fix Your Gut To Fix Your Sleep,” was super fun to write. [Gut health] has a huge impact on your sleep quality because up to 95 percent of your serotonin is produced in your gut, and over 90 percent of your melatonin, you know, the sleep hormone that people talk about. It’s not all about our brain; sleep isn’t in your head, it’s literally in your belly. We need to take care of that microbiome…so avoiding conventionally grown foods – produce especially, pesticides, fungicides, rodenticides, processed foods, artificial sweeteners, things like that that are known to help defeat isogenic bacteria that can mess up your communication with your gut. Also supporting the good bacteria with prebiotics, probiotics, especially in food form first.
What about exercise and sleep?
With exercise and sleep, it’s really simple. It’s when you exercise that makes all the difference in the world as far as your sleep quality. Appalachian State University did a study that I cited where they had exercisers train at three different times, which were 7 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. They found that when the group in the study trained in the morning, exclusively in the morning, at 7 a.m., they had more efficient sleep cycles, they slept longer at night and they also had a 25 percent drop in their blood pressure in the evening, which is a correlation to an activation of the parasympathetic nervous system yet again. So you get those benefits of more anabolic sleep from working out in the morning. Basically the big headline here is that a great night of sleep starts the moment that you wake up in the morning, and then as you're doing things, you know, healthy daily habits, daily rituals which are going to translate to better results on the pillow later that night.
Are there foods that can improve sleep quality?
Great sources [of magnesium] are green leaf vegetables, nuts and seeds, superfoods like Brazil nuts and Spirulina.
Do recommend eating or drinking anything in particular a few hours before bedtime?
This is tricky terrain. If you do really want to have something close to bedtime, there’s a way to go about that that’s effective. But generally, it’s probably a good idea for us to finish eating at least two hours before we go to bed. There’s another study in the book, and basically I was looking at the activity of cortisol in the body when you eat a meal – a person with a normal BMI, healthy weight, when you eat a meal, you’re going to get about a 5 percent increase in cortisol, which is normal, because it is a little bit of a stressful event because your body is trying to convert food into energy. The issue with cortisol is that it’s as close to an anti-sleep hormone as you can get. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s that it keeps you up. If you are going to eat close to bedtime, it’s best to go for higher fat foods.
Can a lack of sleep make you hungrier?
Absolutely, yes. It’s difficult to have healthy habits – people’s optimism and their dedication to exercise, radically goes down when [they] don’t get a good night sleep. Percentages go down for you getting up and going to exercise, you’re going to make poor food choices, and this is really just a struggle between your biology and your will power. Your body wants to get those nutrients and that blood sugar back to your brain, because sleep deprivation basically sucks that away from your brain.
What are your top tips for getting a good night’s sleep?
There’s so many, but [there are] three hard hitters. Number one would be definitely what we just talked about: to get 5-10 minutes of exercise in the first thing in the morning, no matter what. If the morning time is the time that you’re available to exercise and do a full workout, go to the gym, then do that, because it translates to better sleep later. But, if you don’t, and you’re not a morning exerciser, and you plan on exercising after work, 5-10 minutes is not going to interrupt your exercise later, but it is going to help to radically increase your sleep quality by encouraging and resetting the cortisol. Number two would be to make sure that you're protecting [yourself from] your computer screen and TV screen. Harvard researchers affirm that the blue light coming from our favorite devices, our TVs, our iPhones, can suppress your melatonin for up to three hours. The best thing you could do is give yourself a “screen curfew” because you could be physiologically passed out on your bed for eight hours, but only be getting five hours of sleep in a way, because your melatonin is suppressed. Number three would be to make sure that you’re sleeping in a cool environment. What the research shows is between 62-68°F is the ideal spot to be in as far as room temperature. And of course you have blankets and all of that stuff that you can easily kick off. But if the room itself is too hot, it can basically put a big time disruption on your body’s natural processes.
If you follow these tips, and see your sleep quality improve, how long will it take to start shedding body fat?
With sleep you play the long game. You’re really looking at not losing weight, but literally getting rid of the weight. A lot of people lose weight and they gain it again. So [getting good sleep] is actually setting up your body, changing your hormonal blueprint, to actually let the weight go permanently. You want to look at it like that. You don’t want to look at it like, “I lost five pounds in two days.” What you can look forward to seeing is, within about a week, with some other lifestyle factors – eating real food, doing a little bit of exercise – your results will magnify five or ten fold.