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Is Sleep More Important Than Nutrition, Exercise & Mindfulness?

Lindsay Kellner
Author: Medical reviewer:
Updated on September 16, 2019
Lindsay Kellner
Contributing Wellness & Beauty Editor
By Lindsay Kellner
Contributing Wellness & Beauty Editor
Lindsay is a freelance writer and certified yoga instructor based in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a journalism and psychology degree from New York University. Kellner is the co-author of “The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide to Ancient Self Care,” with mbg Sustainability Editor Emma Loewe.
Bindiya Gandhi, M.D.
Medical review by
Bindiya Gandhi, M.D.
Dr. Bindiya Gandhi is an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician who completed her family medicine training at Georgia Regents University/Medical College of Georgia.
September 16, 2019

When we're falling behind in one area of our lives, sleep is often the first sacrifice we make. Too often, in fact. According to the CDC, more than one-third1 of Americans don't get enough sleep. It's officially a public health problem.

Lack of sleep is making us fat, sick, inflamed, and imbalanced. Over time, depriving your body of the sleep it needs is just as harmful as drunk driving, chronically overeating, or not exercising2 and the consequences are much more serious than next-day drowsiness. As much as we'd like to believe in the super powers of yoga, green smoothies, and meditation, none of it will make up for lost shut-eye. Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to increased risk2 of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and stroke. Yikes!

It's no secret that sleep is necessary to feel our best and yet we've denied ourselves proper rest consistently enough to paint a picture of the sleepless hero: the one who excels at work, pushes hard at the gym, goes out on weekends, is a perfect mom, always keeping her cool on five hours or less. Newsflash: this person isn't real (and if she were, she'd be completely burned out). She's also becoming irrelevant. The NYT just called sleep "the new status symbol," nodding to the still-upward trend in personal well-being. According to mbg's experts, sleep is not just "status," it's the most important part of your wellness routine.

If sleep is the foundation of our well-being and we increasingly desire more of it, why are we still struggling to get enough?

"I'll sleep when I'm dead."

The reasons we're sleep deprived are as numerous and diverse as we are, but most can be traced back to a few common themes: anxiety, overwork, pride, distraction or "fomo," clinical insomnia, hormone imbalance, new parenthood, or a combination thereof.

Sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, says you'll burn out a lot sooner than you think if you're consistently sleep deprived. "I find it so interesting that even the healthiest people will sacrifice their sleep," said Dr. Breus. "...[Y]our brain does not allow you to feel sleepy or sleep deprived for quite a while. Thus you can 'tough it out' or supplement with caffeine, and bypass a lot of the warning signs of sleep deprivation, even as a healthy person."

Amy Shah, MD, one of mbg's gut health and hormone experts, said that people simply don't acknowledge the important role of sleep in their well-being. "My problem is too often people with very stressful lives skimp on sleep as a badge of honor and then wonder why they are not able to lose weight especially that little bit of belly fat."

It's true: our stressful, busy lives are leading to sleep sacrifice. As more health-conscious folk start to see the symptoms of sleep deprivation manifest as hormone imbalance, leaky gut, and brain fog, we're becoming more interested in getting the best sleep we can.

It's time to re-think the way we prioritize sleep.

Of course, the problem with calling sleep a luxury "status symbol" is that it's absolutely necessary for our well-being.

"I think sleep should be considered the new vital sign," said Dr. Breus. If there's something wrong with your sleep, chances are it's affecting something else, causing weight gain, brain fog, or worsening a chronic disease.

"Sleep is by far my number one priority for people trying to get their health in check," which is often more challenging than it should be, Dr. Shah said.

Sleep directly affects metabolic processes (yes, your ability to lose weight).

Several studies show how sleep negatively affects the brain's capacity to regulate appetite. In one study that examined metabolism, two identical groups with the same diet and exercise regimen were compared with one difference: sleep deprivation. The group that slept well lost weight while the sleep-deprived group gained it.

It also affects the gut-brain connection. Vincent Pedre, MD, one of mbg's gut health experts, explains how it starts a hormonal chain reaction. "We have seen this in experiments done with mice: Creating artificial jet lag in the mice resulted in weight gain3 by altering the gut flora. Basically, sleep loss disrupts the hormone system, resulting in high blood glucose levels and increased insulin resistance, which leads to fat deposition inside and around the abdomen, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increased hunger signaling (ghrelin), and decreased satiety signal (leptin)."

Lack of sleep leads to brain fog and affects your memory.

In addition to hormone regulation, sleep plays a huge role in our ability to process subconscious thought, think creatively, and make complex decisions. It's important to experience all stages of sleep, especially deep sleep (stages 3 and 4) for mental processing.

"First we see a physical restoration during sleep stages 3 and 4. This is where the bulk of growth hormone is produced, and we see the body repairing itself. At the end we see more REM sleep and a mental restoration. In part this begins with stages 3 and 4 which act like a filter for valuable information, meaning that they filter out all the info that we don’t really need for long term decision making and use. During REM sleep we move information from short term memory to long term memory, and create an organizational substructure to recall, and problem solve," said Dr. Breus.

Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, argues that pulling all-nighters is actually more harmful to the cause of your project and warns that making up for a sleep deficit is like credit card debt—it accrues interest. "Pulling all-nighters harms you in the long term: mentally, emotionally and physically. When you stay up all night (or even a good part of the night), your ability to concentrate, learn new information and remember things diminishes. All of these factors can contribute to reduced productivity and efficiency. And it often takes more than one night to make up that sleep deprivation," said Dr. Lombardo.

Not only is it tough to be mindful when you're sleep deprived, but hormone imbalances create the perfect environment for meltdowns, whether they're personal or professional. "You are more likely to be irritable and have difficulty regulating your emotions. You might, for example, cry over something that really isn’t that big of a deal," said Dr. Lombardo.

So what's better: waking up early to work out or sleeping in another hour?

It depends on how you slept the night before, and how you've been sleeping overall.

"Skip an hour of exercise if you have consistently gotten less than six hours of sleep. If one day you have a poor night of sleep—but usually you sleep well—you can exercise and then compensate the following night," Dr. Shah recommended.

As it turns out, sleep tips the balance in our wellness equation more than we thought.

Hacking and tracking: the fine line between optimization and obsession.

It's hard to resist the urge to optimize your own sleep after understanding how sleeplessness can reverse your efforts to look and feel good. The trend toward tailored wellness is still going strong this year, and we've never seen as many sleep tracking devices on the market that speak directly to this sleepy consumer demand.

For starters, leveled-up wearables like the EMFIT QS give feedback on how to change your sleep habits for optimal recovery, geared specifically to active people. There’s also the Oura Ring, which registers your body temperature and tracks your sleep trends and REM cycles.

If you're not into wearables or want something less fitness-driven, smart mattresses that sync with tracking tech via an app, like Eight, provide full reports on the quality of your sleep and make suggestions on bed time, temperature (the tracker, which lies on top of your mattress, comes with a heating feature), and wake time. You can also connect it to any blue-tooth enabled device in your home, like your coffee maker, so your cup of joe is ready and waiting by the time you shuffle into the kitchen.

Some sleep apps operate at a distance without any need for physical contact, like the classic Sleep Cycle. More advanced devices like the S+ Resmed use radio waves to monitor your slumber, and still others like Sense, is like an Amazon Alexa specifically focused on helping you sleep better.

With all this extra help, we should all be sleeping like babies. Right? While sleep trackers can be illuminating, they can cause even more trouble for people who are prone to performance anxiety. This gamification of slumber can cause "orthosomnia," which is a fancy way of saying that you're taking the tracking too far, and it's making your insomnia worse. It's also important to note that many of these sleep trackers are still in early development stages, and no tracker will ever be a substitute for how you feel.

A seismic shift.

Rest assured, sleeping is not selfish and not sleeping isn't the badge of honor it once was. If you want to be your best self, and consequently make the biggest, best impact on the world, you need to sleep well. Emerging research continues to support what our bodies tell us, and we predict that a larger, seismic sleep shift will gain serious momentum this year.

Sleep can be one of the best things we do for our well-being, and all week long we'll be publishing content that will help you discover what kind of sleeper you are, how to improve your "problem areas," and the sleep habits of our favorite wellness cognoscenti. Dream on, dreamers.

Lindsay Kellner author page.
Lindsay Kellner
Contributing Wellness & Beauty Editor

Lindsay Kellner is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist based out of Brooklyn, NY. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and psychology at New York University and earned a 200-hour yoga certification from Sky Ting. She is the co-author of “The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide to Ancient Self Care,” along with mbg’s Sustainability Editor, Emma Loewe.