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The Relationship Between Sleep and Wellness

National xyz day. National xyz month. We hear about a plethora of national health observances designed to increase our awareness and, hopefully, stimulate some positive change. This year, the week of March 6th is devoted to something near and dear to everyone’s heart—sleep.

The American relationship with sleep is an odd one. We love it, we need it, we say we want it. Yet, we so hastily and casually ignore it. To make matters worse, we seem to hold up this cavalier approach to sleep as some sort of badge of honor. It’s as though the less we sleep, the more amazing we’re supposed to be. Are we trying to prove our superhuman powers by showing that we can “do it all” simply by not sleeping?

The concept of cutting into sleep to make time for family, work, exercise or whatever may sound good in theory. However, each of those things that we tout as reasons for sacrificing sleep all suffer when we do.

Daily brain cleaning

A study done at the University of Rochester found that when we sleep, we literally rid our brains of toxins that amass as a normal byproduct of daily brain activity. This is believed to be part of why our brains function better when rested.1

There is no shortage of research proving the undisputed relationship between sleep and cognitive ability. Lack of sleep interferes with concentration, problem solving and memory. It may even be associated with Alzheimer’s disease.2

Emotional intelligence

Let’s face it—when we’re tired, we’re far more apt to be cranky. What makes that so? We become less empathetic and more insensitive. We lose the ability to stop for that brief moment and look at things from another point of view, something essential to developing and maintaining quality interpersonal relationships.

Insufficient sleep has also long been believed to have a symbiotic relationship with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Once again, these conditions can bring additional stress to relationships.

People slept better when they ate better – and slept worse when they ate worse.

The physical impact

The list of medical conditions that sleep has been said to impact is not just long but serious with the risk of heart disease, heart attack, diabetes and stroke noted just for starters. WebMD also highlights that weight gain or the inability to lose weight may also be linked to lack of proper sleep.3

As if sleep alone isn’t enough to worry about, there’s also the diet-sleep connection. Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center found that study participants slept better when they ate better—and slept worse when they ate worse. Excessive fat and insufficient fiber resulted in more disrupted sleep and longer times to fall asleep. People were also found to consume as much as 500 additional calories per day following a night of not sleeping enough.4

The reasons for this are likely two-fold. On the psychological level, when we feel bad, we tend to make poor food choices. On the physiological level, the natural hunger-satiety cycle becomes disrupted and the body then acts as though it “craves” the wrong thing or doesn’t “crave” the right one.

Catching up on sleep over the weekend is fine but should be no replacement for a regular cadence to good sleep.

The pick-up-as-you-go approach

Catching up on sleep over the weekend is fine but should be no replacement for a regular cadence to good sleep. Going to bed and waking at more or less the same times every day matters. It creates a balanced state in the body that results in better overall performance and feeling. It’s like picking up a little each day around the house versus leaving all of the dishes, clothes, etc. wherever they get left until Saturday rolls around. The latter plops quite a heavy and unpleasant cleaning load on your supposed-to-be-relaxing weekend plate.

So, I hope you take advantage of National Sleep Awareness Week 2016 and put sleep in the spotlight. At work, at home and wherever life takes you, improved sleep can be an integral part of an improved wellness journey.


Matt Ferguson is responsible for the strategy, technical development and delivery of WebMD Health Services’ wellness coaching solutions.  Matt works tirelessly to ensure that WebMD offers effective and impactful coaching that delivers meaningful behavior change and positive health outcomes. Beginning his career as a health coach himself and then working in various operational roles before transitioning to product and strategy, Matt’s unique perspective makes him ideally suited to his role at WebMD. Matt has a BA in Kinesiology from Purdue University and a Masters of Science in Biomechanics from Ball State University. He also holds the Clinical Exercise Physiologist credential from the American College of Sports Medicine.

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