Stress and Sleep Impact Health and Weight

Businessman with the World on his ShouldersMost of my posts on this site have been about my weight loss program, but there is more to being healthy and choosing health. There is also more to losing weight than just the types and amount of food you eat. One other dimension of health is proper sleep. Getting enough sleep so that your body can rest is very important.

We may think nothing is getting done while sleeping. This thought has been my problem for years. All my life I have been the early riser. I have always woken up with a head full of things that need done. Since my office is in my house, getting to my desk is one of my first steps each morning. For years I would get up sometime between 4 and 5 AM (my wife’s alarm goes off at 4), then stop off for coffee in the kitchen and go straight to my desk and start my day. I would usually start work within ten minutes of waking up. This morning I’ve have had my first meal replacement, have checked the church’s social media sites, have checked church’s email accounts, have laid out plans for the day, and have started this blog post. I got out of bed only a half hour ago. This is the best part of working at home.

Being this way, I often saw sleep as unproductive time. When I woke, my mind would spark on ideas and I’d jump up and go to work—I’m sure those who barely crawl out of bed want to shoot me right about now. On top of this, I’m not very good at taking naps. I seldom enjoy them. However, I had to learn to see sleep as something other than unproductive, do-nothing time. During sleep is your body does a great deal of housekeeping: waste disposal, endocrine balancing, muscle building, etc. If you don’t get enough sack time these things don’t get done well. One choice I’ve made is to get enough sleep each night, shooting for 7 to 8 hours. Of course, this is not always possible, especially when under stress.

Stress related sleep problems can be a triple threat to losing weight and getting healthy. Under stress your body releases cortisol. This causes your body to desire carbs and sugars. It also causes you to store more of your intake as reserves. This is fine if stress involves possible running from a sabre toothed cat on the Eurasian steppe or a leopard on the Serengeti, but not so good for an overweight man who sits in an office chair all day. One way your body gets rid of cortisol is through good deep sleep. The more you sleep, the more cortisol is removed from your body. The less you sleep the less is removed and the more problems this can cause. Then stress, which makes your body produce this cortisol, makes it hard to sleep. So, this very system meant to help becomes a source of defeat. Cravings go up; need for caffeine increases; less sleep is possible as you worry; more cortisol is produced and less is removed; and you end up in a downward spiral. The most insidious part is that, for men at least, the hardest fat to lose is around the midsection (abdominal fat). Guess where cortisol packs it on? Cortisol contributes to abdominal fat—right there, where it is hardest to remove.

I decided early on to change my waking time to around 6 AM. I’m still in my office within 5 minutes, so it makes little difference for productivity. However, it gives my body between 7 and 8 hours each night. Lately though, I’ve been under a lot of stress with several personal and professional choices. This has made falling asleep, and staying asleep more difficult. One of the great things about losing weight has been the loss of my C-PAP machine. I no longer need it for sleep. However, over the last couple weeks stress has started affecting my sleep. For a while I found myself unable to fall asleep for long periods of time and then sleeping very lightly. I wear a Jawbone UP24 which monitors my sleep patterns telling me how long I spend in each sleep stage (light or sound sleep) and how often I awaken. I noticed it becoming harder to fall asleep, harder to fall back asleep when waking during the night, and harder to stay in bed after my wife’s alarm went off at 4 AM. I also noticed that what time I did sleep was being reported as less and less sound sleep and more light sleep by the Jawbone app.

The biggest problem has been thoughts that just won’t leave my head. I was finding it harder and harder to disengage my mind. Then I would finally fall fitfully asleep and then seemed to wake continuously through the night. If I didn’t find a way to undo this, it would sabotage all the healthy choices I was trying to make. A couple nights ago I decided upon a strategy to try, which I’ll share here for others who may be struggling.

I have for years practiced various forms of journaling. I usually have four journals going at once. One is a small notebook that I carry in my pocket to jot down quick thoughts and ideas. Many of my blog ideas get written down in there to work on later. Another is a journal where I write down personal thoughts and conclusions on various scripture passages—it will contain Greek and Hebrew word studies, outlines of passages, etc. A third journal is where I write down my thoughts on various theological and philosophical problems, etc. For example, when I jot down my thoughts on arguments about the existence of God, or the problem of evil those thoughts go in the philosophical journal. My final journal is the traditional type. It is a bound book with lined blank pages where I record my deepest thoughts and meditations. I’ve always slept with the small journal next to my bed with a pen in case an idea struck during the night—I could write it down and put it aside until morning.

A couple nights ago I decided on an experiment. I had noticed that after journaling on a problem I usually felt better. I decided to move the journal to my nightstand and, every night before bed, write down my thoughts, fears, apprehensions, emotions, etc. Then when I lay my head down, anytime something would creep in to remind me of a stressful situation, I would tell myself, “It’s already in the book. I can’t fix it tonight, but will work on it in the morning.” Then I would try to think about something comforting or relaxing. In this way I could put off thinking about those things, knowing I could go back to them in the morning. Upon waking, I open the journal and look through what was written the night before and use it as part of my planning the day. This way, when trying to sleep, I have assurance things will still get taken care of.

Over the last two nights, I’ve gotten an average of eight hours sleep and most of that has been deep sleep (an average of over 5 hours each night) according to my monitor. I feel much more rested. Hopefully cortisol levels will be helped. Now, I know this is not scientific. I also know it is only two nights. However, my personal experiences tell me it works for me. Try it if you want and see if it helps you to get better sleep.

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Up and Moving, Lump No More

couchpotatoThis last Friday, after posting my weekly weight, I decided to ride my bike to get a bit of exercise. In the past I would have been pretty tired after a ride, but this time I rode farther than ever and felt less tired.

Later, while sitting down to my office work I decided to take a few minutes to complete a little honey-do project my wife wanted done. I work out of my house so it is easy to take a few minutes off from my day, here and there, to get things done around home. From that choice the rest of the day got weird—at least weird for me. The weirdness came from the amount of energy I had. I much more energy than I’ve had in years. I’ll try to describe what it was like. The next bit of this post may seem a bit frenzied and hard to follow but that is intentional.

“Bye honey! Have a nice day at work!

“Before I get to work I better hook that TV up in the other room for my wife; I have to clean up that space for it; that belongs in this drawer; this drawer is a mess, I’d better straighten it out; no, I better rearrange all of these drawers to get them straight; why are those in here they should be in the closet? The closet has all these things we will never use; I better clear them out; I’ll make a pile of things for the Salvation Army and a pile of sentimental things to box up; now that everything is cleared out I should put these boxes up into the attic; hey, the attic is a mess! I’d better straighten it up. Now I should run those boxes over to donate; while I’m out I should run to the store for batteries for that old flashlight I found. I really should stop by Lowes to pick up a new doorbell to fix ours and take my wife’s watch to the jeweler for a new battery; I also need to head to the office store to order new cards; nope, I don’t like their selections so I’ll order some online; I should install the new door bell, etc.

“Oh, hi honey! You’re home! Guess what I did all day.”

I’m enjoying the new me. I enjoy wanting to get up and move. My wife is happier and often brags to people about the changes. Oh, and for any husbands considering losing weight, with all this energy, when I chase my wife, she’s easier to catch!