5 Ways to Get Out of Sleep Debt

Anika Christ, RD, LD – Senior Program Manager of Nutrition and Weight Loss for Life Time Fitness

I talk about sleep all the time. As a registered dietitian, it’s one of the most popular topics I discuss with my clients (and coach them about) when it comes to making changes in order to lose weight.

Most people who are trying to lose weight know they will likely have to make some changes in their eating and engage in some sort of exercise program. And for some, eating right and working out on a regular basis is enough to get the results they’re looking for. But for most, it’s not enough.

If I’ve learned anything in over 10 years of coaching, it’s that a lack of enough high-quality sleep impacts a client’s ability to lose weight. Research continues to show that a single night of shortened sleep not only reduces physical and mental performance, but also decreases the body’s ability to manage blood sugar levels and increases cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods (not ideal when trying to lose weight).

If one bad night of sleep creates negative side effects, imagine the long-term impact from chronic sleep debt. Consistent lack of sleep causes weight gain, development of insulin resistance, decreased cognitive functioning, increased cortisol production and many other metabolic problems.

Until we discuss it, my clients often don’t realize the impact sleep deprivation has on their metabolism and how it can negate the positive behaviors we try to implement during the day – such as eating right or sticking to a fitness routine. Ironically, many of my clients have actually decreased their sleep time in order to sneak in a daily morning workout, without knowing that less sleep could actually be detrimental to their initial goal of weight loss.

Also, when your body doesn’t sleep well, it has a harder time recovering from your workout, or responding well to that workout (shedding body fat, building muscle).

“Just sleep more” sounds easy to do. But, because most people have deprioritized sleep on our long list of to-dos and are so out of the habit, we need more strategy when it comes to bringing it back to the top of our list.

When coaching my clients, I’ve found five strategies that work the best and net the biggest impact when it comes to getting more sleep, increasing metabolism and supporting weight loss.

1. Track your sleep debt.

If you don’t track something, it’s really hard to show or see improvement in what you are trying to change, including the food you eat, the water you drink, and the sleep you get. But if you are like most people, tracking your food, water, exercise, etc., can feel mundane and takes a lot of patience.

For sleep, we want to see improvements in both quantity and quality. Adults often don’t know how much sleep they are getting, usually because they’re not thinking about it or have never stopped to really track or quantify it. And although you can start tracking sleep by recording what time you went to bed each night and woke up each morning, the quality of sleep is completely subjective. Usually I ask my clients if they felt refreshed in the morning (or exhausted), if they slept throughout the night (or woke up multiple times) or if they had issues falling asleep. The goal is 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. But there must be plenty of deep uninterrupted sleep during that length of time to support their metabolism.

One of the best ways to track the quality (and quantity) of sleep is with a device, or even better, a bed. Over the past few years, multiple applications have hit the market as tools to help individuals track their sleep. But the best gauge I’ve found is my Sleep Number® bed. Not only does it provide an optimal sleep environment (it’s super comfy and specific to me through its Sleep Number® technology), but all I have to do is sleep in the bed; the bed does all the tracking for me. It tells me what time I actually fell asleep and awoke, the quantity of REM (deep sleep) I get each night, and it provides a SleepIQ® score that gives me a big picture of how well my night of sleep went. Knowing that number helps me plan my day, including the level of workout I can handle and appropriate nutrition (more on those specifics in a future post).

2. Set an earlier bedtime.

Having a bedtime is a great start. For most adults, especially with young kids, bedtime varies each night as we try to shove as much stuff in as possible every evening before bed. Try to set a time you want to be in bed that allows at least 7 hours of sleep and stick to it as much as possible, including weekends. Record television programs that run past your bedtime and watch episodes during your normal waking hours. Most adults have an alarm clock to wake them up; setting the alarm to go to bed is just as important.

3. Treat yourself like a kid.

If you are a parent, you know kids sleep better when they have a routine for sleeping. Changing into pajamas, having optimal time to wind-down from electronics (no screen time at least an hour before bed), reading a good book to relax and incorporating a warm bath/shower are all kid-friendly strategies that work for adults, too.

The idea is to create a personal nighttime routine. Many of us are extremely structured during the day by waking up at the same time every morning and going to work at the same time. At night, however, we fly by the seat of our pants. Routines are helpful because they create consistency and habit, and the strategies listed above also help support your natural production of melatonin (sleep hormone).

4. Optimize your environment.

A long list of variables can influence your ability to fall and stay asleep comfortably, including artificial lights (tablets, cell phones, televisions, etc.), your mattress, your snoring partner, your home’s temperature and many other factors.

Spend some time assessing where you sleep. Is it calming and relaxing? Does it represent a place for rest or, if you are like most of my clients, it might represent more of a catch-all, do-all room instead.

If it has been a while since you’ve changed your mattress, or if you wake up with aches or pains, set a goal to start saving for a new bed. Other shifts for creating a more inviting room for rest include using light blocking curtains to ensure a dark room, setting your thermostat to a cooler temperature (around 65 degrees is the optimum sleep temperature) or using white noise (from a fan) or sound machine at night. My Sleep Number® bed set at my most comfortable setting helps me get my most restful sleep, and I also spray my sheets and pillow with a lavender spray that relaxes me, and I’ve switched out my light switches with dimmers so I can start dimming the room light as it gets closer to bedtime.

5. “End” the day.

Let’s say you’ve got the above tips covered, yet in bed you still toss and turn and your mind races about work and other stresses. Many of my clients go to bed with the best intentions, yet find themselves dwelling on the unfinished tasks of the day and all the things they need to do tomorrow.

Instead of thinking about it, try writing your to-dos in a journal on your nightstand. Taking 5 to 10 minutes before bed to prep for the next day can be a great practice to help relieve stress, and dealing with all those ideas and concerns in your head will help you relax. I often use that time in my bedroom to set out my workout and work clothes for the next day to help minimize the stress that often comes in the morning.

For more helpful sleep tips, check out the Sleep Number blog.