For much of the last 10 years, Sharon Ife Charles-Hewitt’s nighttime routine has gone something like this: “I sleep for two hours. I get up and play for two hours — usually solitaire or I do Facebook or look at work emails — and I’m back in bed for another two hours. It’s not even a consistent four hours of sleep, it’s intervals but not a straight four hours.”
“I’ve seen the perils of that manifest in the ways I operate throughout the day,” says the 54-year-old wife, mother, community activist and nonprofit organization executive. “There’s a lethargy you feel, a lack of focus. You get these major bursts of energy and then these really big drops, lows throughout the day.”
As much she hates to admit it, when she’s sleep-deprived, Charles-Hewitt often temporarily boosts her flagging energy by satisfying a serious sweet tooth. “A good cookie or some cake,” Charles-Hewitt says of her quick fixes. “I identify as this emotional eater. A lack of sleep brings on unwanted emotions for me.”
It’s no accident that Charles-Hewitt and many other sleep-deprived people manage their demanding days by giving in to their hankering for something sweet. Several scientific studies, including ones in a 2018 issue of Appetite and a February 2020 issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association, suggest that inadequate sleep drives cravings for nutrient-poor, sugar-dense foods.
For adults, getting less than seven to eight hours of restful sleep suppresses the regulating hormones leptin, which tells us when to stop eating, and the fast-acting ghrelin, which tells us when to eat. “They’re tied to our sense of feeling hungry and feeling satisfied,” Dayna Johnson, an Emory University sleep researcher and professor, tells Sisters .
Because they’re worried, many of my patients are eating more and sleeping less.
Insufficient sleep impacts the brain’s decision-making capacity. “It makes you more likely to engage in riskier behavior,” adds Johnson, who studies sleep disorders and their impact on chronic diseases. “It makes you more likely to eat higher carb foods, sugar, starchy carbs, drink a soda. You’re more likely to eat a donut than a salad. The donut is an easy go-to .”
Getting better sleep sometimes requires a more deliberate strategy, says Chimene Castor, a registered dietician and nutritional counselor who has spent recent weeks emailing suggested meal menus to her patients, along with advice on how not to let coronavirus-induced anxieties keep them up at night. “Because they’re worried, many of my patients are eating more and sleeping less,” says Castor, also a Howard University researcher and professor.
A few of them bristled at getting her meal-planning instructions amid this pandemic. “So, I said, ‘Think about (what can happen) if your blood pressure goes up to certain number, if your sugar is up, if you have to go to a hospital. How does that expose you to COVID-19? Think about the consequence of not eating right, of not doing a 10-minute yoga session … Let’s have a plan.’”
Better sleep can be had, say Johnson, Castor and other experts
• Don’t exercise or consume alcoholic beverages or nicotine products within two hours of bedtime. All are stimulants.
• Take a warm bath before bed to lower the body’s temperature, which helps promote sleep.
• Sleep on a comfy mattress in a quiet, dark room. Glaring outdoor lights and sunshine stimulate the brain’s desire to awaken the body.
• Whether through meditation, breathing, mindfulness or other calming rituals, relax before bed.
• Limit the Netflix-bingeing, social media and other computerized connectivity that’s helping to get many people through these times. Those screens give off blue light that can inhibit production of melatonin, a sleep-enhancing hormone.
• Eat three properly proportioned, nutritious meals and two nutritious snacks daily to keep your metabolism steady and blood sugars stable. Sugars that dip too high or low disrupt sleep.
During this pandemic, Charles-Hewitt, an executive with the Center for Court Innovation in New York City, has been taking a cannabis-based sleep aid that she gets from a legal, medical-marijuana dispensary and is being more judicious about what she puts in her belly.
“It goes hand in hand. When I do sleep well, I find myself being a lot more conscious about what I put in my body. That, in turn, contributes to better sleep,” says Charles-Hewitt, who was diagnosed with mild depression in 1995 in the aftermath of her 5-year-old son’s death.
“Because your mind is operating differently, not on the highs and lows you feel when you don’t have the proper sleep, you get more in tune to your senses. You want to be obedient, to be good to yourself and put healthy things in your body.”