Monday, October 4, 2010

The Big Sleep

This blog usually focuses on diet, because that's my specialty. But if you want Whole Health, you need the whole package: a diet and lifestyle that is broadly consistent with our evolutionary heritage. I think we all know that on some level, but a recent paper has reminded me of it.

I somehow managed to get on the press list of the Annals of Internal Medicine. That means they send me embargoed papers before they're released to the general public. That journal publishes a lot of high-impact diet studies, so it's a great privilege for me. I get to write about the studies, and publish my analysis at the time of general release, which is the same time the news outlets publish their stories.

One of the papers they sent me recently is a fat loss trial with an interesting twist (1; see below). All participants were told to eat 10% fewer calories that usual for two weeks, however half of them were instructed to sleep for 8 and a half hours per night, and the other half were instructed to sleep for 5 and a half hours*. The actual recorded sleep times were 7:25 and 5:14, respectively.

Weight loss by calorie restriction causes a reduction of both fat and lean mass, which is what the investigators observed. Both groups lost the same amount of weight. However, 80% of the weight was lost as fat in the high-sleep group (2.4/3.0 kg lost as fat), while only 48% of it was lost as fat in the low-sleep group (1.4/2.9 kg lost as fat). Basically, the sleep-deprived group lost as much lean mass as they did fat mass, which is not good!

There are many observational studies showing associations between insufficient sleep, obesity and diabetes. However, I think studies like that are particularly vulnerable to confounding variables, so I've never known quite what to make of them. Furthermore, they often show that long sleep duration associates with poor health as well, which I find highly unlikely to reflect cause and effect. I discussed one of those studies in a post a couple of years ago (2). That's why I appreciate this controlled trial so much.

Another sleep restriction trial published in the Lancet in 1999 showed that restricting healthy young men to four hours of sleep per night caused them to temporarily develop glucose intolerance, or pre-diabetes (3).

Furthermore, their daily rhythm of the hormone cortisol became abnormal. Rather than the normal pattern of a peak in the morning and a dip in the evening, sleep deprivation blunted their morning cortisol level and enhanced it in the evening. Cortisol is a stress hormone, among other things, and its fluctuations may contribute to our ability to feel awake in the morning and ready for bed at night.

The term "adrenal fatigue", which refers to the aforementioned disturbance in cortisol rhythm, is characterized by general fatigue, difficulty waking up in the morning, and difficulty going to sleep at night. It's a term that's commonly used by alternative medical practitioners but not generally accepted by mainstream medicine, possibly because it's difficult to demonstrate and the symptoms are fairly general. Robb Wolf talks about it in his book The Paleo Solution.

The investigators concluded:
Sleep debt has a harmful impact on carbohydrate metabolism and endocrine function. The effects are similar to those seen in normal ageing and, therefore, sleep debt may increase the severity of age-related chronic disorders.
So there you have it. Besides making us miserable, lack of sleep appears to predispose to obesity and diabetes, and probably sets us up for the Big Sleep down the line. I can't say I'm surprised, given how awful I feel after even one night of six hour sleep. I feel best after 9 hours, and I probably average about 8.5. Does it cut into my free time? Sure. But it's worth it to me, because it allows me to enjoy my day much more.

Keep your room as dark as possible during sleep. It also helps to avoid bright light, particularly in the blue spectrum, before bed (4). "Soft white" bulbs are preferable to full spectrum in the evening. If you need to use your computer, dim the monitor and adjust it to favor warm over cool colors. For people who sleep poorly due to anxiety, meditation before bed can be highly effective. I posted a tutorial here.

1. Nedeltcheva, AV et al. "Insufficient Sleep Undermines Dietary Efforts to Reduce Adiposity." Annals of Internal Medicine. 2010. Advanced publication.

* The study was a randomized crossover design with a 3 month washout period, which I consider a rigorous design. I think the study overall was very clever. The investigators used calorie restriction to cause rapid changes in body composition so that they could see differences on a reasonable timescale, rather than trying to deprive people of sleep for months and look for more gradual body fat changes without dietary changes. The latter experiment would have been more interesting, but potentially impractical and unethical.


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