Sleeping less or having disrupted sleep affects brain function, imbalances the hormones, and increases inflammation. All these factors can negatively affect your blood glucose. First, fewer than 6 hours of nightly sleep is associated with an increased risk of developing prediabetes, diabetes, and the sinister friends of diabetes (including hypertension, obesity, and heart diseases).
In a landmark study by Professor Eve van Cauter, 11 healthy men who typically slept for 8 hours each night were limited to only 4 hours every night for six days, followed by 12 hours of sleep for the next six days. After five days of each type of sleep, the men were tested to see how their bodies responded to glucose. The results showed rather strikingly that sleeping less reduces the body’s ability to bring down blood glucose levels after drinking a glass of glucose water—as if the person almost has diabetes. When the men in the study slept well, their blood glucose control returned to normal. A sleep-deprived brain also craves excessive calories that it does not need, resulting in weight gain.
ARE YOU SLEEPING WELL?
Ask yourself the following three questions to get a clear picture of your sleep quality.
QUESTION 1: WHEN DO YOU GO TO BED, AND HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR YOU TO FALL ASLEEP?
Most people do not shut off the lights and fall asleep immediately. An average person with good sleep habits should be able to fall asleep within 20 minutes of getting into bed and shutting off the lights. During these 20 minutes, there should be nothing else between you and sleep: no book or phone. No light.
If you struggle to fall asleep and you’re in bed for more than 30 minutes, turning and tossing, that’s a sign you have difficulty getting to sleep. This is the definition of insomnia: difficulty falling asleep.
The main culprits for insomnia are:
- Worry: This increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which is meant to keep us awake.
- Too much food: The core body temperature is too high for sleep.
- Too little physical activity: This reduces the production of the muscle hormone that promotes sleep.
- Too much time spent in bright light in the evening: this reduces melatonin production.
QUESTION 2: HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU WAKE UP DURING THE NIGHT?
Fragmented sleep is defined as waking up more than once during the night for at least a few minutes, to the point where it’s difficult to go back to sleep. This type of sleep is not optimal because the brain registers only the time you sleep, and it responds as if it isn’t getting any sleep at all during these periods of fragmented sleep. For instance, if you were in bed for 8 hours but woke up three or four times, your brain might register only 4 or 5 hours of actual sleep. Even if you woke up for only 10 or 15 minutes each time, it takes additional time to get back to that deep sleep phase, and you miss out on this continuous, uninterrupted sleep.
As we age, sleep becomes more fragile, and it is common to experience fragmented sleep. The arousal threshold decreases with age, so we wake up to simple noises or disturbances.
The main causes of fragmented sleep are:
- Ambient temperature being too hot or cold
- Acid reflux caused by eating too late in the evening
- Sleeping with a person/pet who wakes up at night
- Snoring/sleep apnea
- Other noises
QUESTION 3: DO YOU FEEL RESTED WHEN YOU WAKE UP IN THE MORNING?
If you need to wake up to an alarm clock, or if you wake up feeling sleepy or foggy, then you aren’t waking up feeling rested, and, likely, you did not get enough sleep. The leading causes of insufficient sleep relate to difficulty falling asleep or fragmented sleep. Other causes include:
- Sleep debt from previous days. Suppose you habitually sleep for 7 hours and only 6 hours each night for the previous three nights. In that case, sleeping 7 or 8 hours won’t be enough, and you may not feel fully rested in the morning.
- Sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. You might have sleep apnea if you snore loudly and feel tired even after a whole night’s sleep.
- Lights or sounds during sleep. Although you may not wake up, light in the room or ambient noise may disturb your sleep. You may not wake up, but you won’t feel rested in the morning.
STILL NOT SLEEPING?
If you’ve adjusted your nighttime light exposure and still are consistently not getting a good night’s sleep, or if you are waking up at night, try the following techniques:
TURN DOWN THE TEMPERATURE
The body has to cool down during nighttime to sleep. It’s a good idea to reduce the temperature in your bedroom to 70°F or lower so that your skin feels cooler. When this happens, blood flows toward your skin to keep your skin warm. Since the blood is flowing away from the core of the body, the core body temperature can lower, and you will fall asleep much more effortlessly.
If you do not have an air conditioner in your home, take a shower or a warm bath before bed. Warm water also forces the blood flow toward your skin and away from the core.
Some people fall asleep, but after a few hours, they wake up feeling hot. Experiment with your blankets/duvets to find what works best for you. If the blanket or duvet is not the culprit, think about your mattress. Foam mattresses are known to capture and retain heat. The mattress helps you cool down in the first few hours, but after a few hours, the foam can reflect the heat back to your body and warm you up.
TURN THE SOUND UP OR DOWN
In many cities, hooting vehicles/matatus, street sounds, and emergency sirens make it challenging to fall asleep. You can consider moving houses, or a more modern approach is a white-noise machine or app. These devices can make it easier to fall asleep by fighting noise with noise: the machine creates a wall of consistent sound that muffles any intruding noises that might engage your brain during sleep. Indeed, some people find the white sound soothing, helping them fall asleep. They put a radio or smartphone on a timer and play relaxing music at a low volume for a few minutes until they fall asleep.
For others, even small noises (like a noisy air conditioner or a partner who snores) can wake them up. This is where earplugs come in. You may have to try a few to find the type that’s most comfortable for you. They have to fit your ear well, so you don’t have a sore ear canal in the morning. Consider the type of material used to make the earplugs i.e silicon or rubber. But once you find suitable earplugs, you will immediately experience a better night’s sleep: they make a huge difference.
If you have been told that you snore, the easiest, least invasive fix is using a gentle saline spray or neti pot before bed. These are meant to cleanse and open up stuffy noses. The saline spray is safe for both adults and children to use every day. Don’t buy Saline spray without speaking to your Doctor.
Or, try a physical tool that keeps your nose open. There are two main types: ones that open your nostrils slightly wider, like a Breathe Right nasal strip; and ones that are inserted inside the nose to open the airway. By making breathing easier throughout the night, they also allow you to take in more oxygen, which improves the quality of your sleep quite a lot. If snoring continues even after these over-the-counter fixes, see an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT) or a pulmonary medicine sleep specialist.