Is Lack of Sleep Ruining Your Health?

Guide to getting great sleep

Is your diet nailed in but you are still having some health issues?

Are you having trouble losing weight, despite nutrition changes or lots of exercise?

Do you ever crave sugar or carbohydrates, especially at night?

Do you have an afternoon slump and a huge second wind in the late evening?

If you said yes to any of the above, chances are that your sleep (or lack thereof) is sabotaging your health and it could be the missing link between you and your goals.

We’ve all heard how important sleep is, but it turns out that it is likely even more important than we thought.

I recently read the book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival, which though poorly written in parts, has a lot of good information on the science behind the importance of sleep. I’ve also gotten about 20 emails in the last week from readers who have an almost-perfect diet but still are struggling with weight, depression, skin issues or other problems… so I decided this post was well overdue.

It turns out that lack of sleep impacts your health (and your heart disease and cancer risk) just as much as a bad diet or constant exposure to toxins.

A report published by the CDC 11 years ago showed some fascinating evidence linking lack of sleep to cancer. The study reported that profoundly blind women had less than half the breast cancer risk of women with normal vision and profoundly blind men had less than half the risk of prostate, lung, colon and other cancers as normally sighted men.

Even more interesting, this reduced risk of cancer was not present in those who were legally blind but could still see light.

This led researchers to investigate the link between exposure to light (especially after the sun has gone down) and rates of disease.

Further studies revealed that night shift workers have higher rates of many diseases and that blue and green types of lights (from computers, TVs, alarm clocks, mobile phones, etc.) are the worst offenders.

Why Light?

The hormone Melatonin is secreted by the brain during night-time hours and when a person is sleeping. Melatonin also happens to be one of the body’s most powerful antioxidants.

When a person misses even a few hours of sleep, Melatonin levels decline sharply, which can lead to an imbalance of many other hormones. Proper melatonin balance is especially important for keeping estrogen in check as it reduces estrogen production in the body.

This link between estrogen and melatonin helps explain why the correlation between lack of sleep and reproductive cancers is so strong. It also shows why proper sleep is absolutely vital for maximum fertility and healthy reproduction.

As one study showed:

Two groups of laboratory rats were injected breast-cancer-causing agents. One of the two groups was injected with Melatonin – sometimes called the hormone of darkness. Studies showed that the melatonin in the rats prevented them from getting breast cancer; the other group of rats that did not receive melatonin was not prevented from getting breast cancer.

Since estrogen in the body also promotes fat storage, this also helps explain the link between lack of sleep and weight gain or inability to gain weight.

Lack of sleep also interferes with insulin levels and makes the body crave carbohydrates and sugars. This makes dieting difficult to impossible and often causes weight gain.

Light During Sleep

It turns out that even if you are getting enough sleep, having lights of any kind in the room can still lower Melatonin levels enough to cause problems. Some people are more sensitive to this than others, but for some, having complete darkness is vital.

So cover the windows with blackout curtains, get rid of the nightlight and cover the alarm clock!

How To Get Enough of the Right Kind of Sleep

It’s certainly easier to acknowledge that sleep is important than it is to actually get enough of it (*ahem* speaking from personal experience here as sleep is my biggest health challenge).

If you’re having trouble with any of the above issues or are struggling to reach your health goals, give yourself two weeks and see if getting enough sleep makes a difference.

For the next two weeks, try this:

  • Sleep for at least 8.5 (preferably 9) hours a night.
  • Minimize or eliminate blue light after dark (TV, Computer, etc.)
  • Sleep in complete darkness where you can’t even see your hand in front of your face (no clock  light, nightlight, etc.)
  • Cover windows with blankets or blackout curtains
  • Sleep with the temperature below 70 (68 is optimal) for optimal Melatonin production (Bonus: you save on your heating bill)
  • Be in bed before 10 pm if at all possible
  • Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m.
  • Drink some chamomile tea or other relaxing drink to help fall asleep if you have trouble adjusting

Here are some additional tips to help improve your sleep.

Do you get enough sleep? If not, will you take this two week challenge? Tell me about it below!

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Reader Comments

  1. Yeah…now please explain all that to my felines.  They have no problem finding me even in complete darkness…

  2. Oh, I would sooooo love to be able to sleep well. I’ve never slept well, even when young, but it’s just that much worse with pets, children, and pregnancy. Alas, I’m not looking at uninterrupted sleep anytime soon. 

  3. What about taking a melatonin supplement?? Would that be helpful as well?

    • I’ve heard mixed things on this, but an endocrinologist friend has said that it should only be done in extreme circumstances and that for most, a couple weeks of solid sleep will do more than a supplement could because even a supplement won’t be as readily absorbed if the other factors aren’t in place. On that note… I’m off to bed 🙂

  4. Very interesting! Great job reminding us. I guess most people just think of eating right and exercising, but sleep is a must for good health too. Thanks for including the information on the studies…I might have to share that with some folks!

  5. I’m just curious…how do you think this would affect those of us in northern climates?  I live in Alaska and currently it’s dark from about 4pm until about 9:30am.  I typically sleep about 8 hours, though it’s interrupted by a baby, but it’s a lot later than 10pm.  I do have a very hard time waking up no matter what time I go to bed(I’m pretty sure this has to do with the darkness). 
    I will say that when I do regularly go to bed at 10 I lose weight more easily and feel better overall…now actually getting back into this routine has yet to be done.

  6. I’m an adrenal fatigue sufferer and know that lack of sleep, too much information overload (computers and such) and too much stress  causes problems like I have.  I’m in recovery but am def. cutting out stressors like too much electronics.  Getting to sleep early, and many of the things you mentioned could really prevent so many health problems.  Unfortunately so many people (myself included) won’t slow down till a hard health problem hits.  Thank you for putting this out there.  I hope it opens someone’s eyes to slow down and rest.  The book I’m currently reading is Plain Wisdom by Cindy Woodsmall.  It touches on the fact that when the sun goes down, the Amish no longer do manual labor (most anyway) and that it’s a time for rest.  It made me think of how I’ve always worked from sun up till I went to bed.  The thing I’m trying to implement and make habit now is relaxing after dinner in the evening (around 5:00pm).  It’s been very helpful.

    • How did you realize you had adrenal issues? From my reading, I’ve never figured out how you’re suppose to differentiate between thyroid issues, adrenal issues, and all the other possible issues…I get the idea that they’re all generally related, but some of the treatments are different. Thanks for any insight.

  7. Thanks for the excellent post and suggestions. We have already implimented most of the ideas (we laugh about boxing the alarm clock when we turn out the light and bought the room darkening blinds last spring). My frustration comes from the externals like pets and grown children who come home long after we turn out the light (or aren’t home when they said they would be which is even more worrying). My other problem is the hormone fluctuations of being 50 and a hypothyroid handicap. What do you do when you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep? Or can’t fall asleep? Or wake up 1 1/2 hours before the alarm clock and toss and turn? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks, Joanne

  8. I am so tempted to commit to a two week sleep challenge, but then who would write my blog?  Or cook the food?  Or tidy the house? When would I watch my mindless tv shows on my laptop if I didn’t have screens after dark?  Maybe I could send the 1 year old and 5 year old to grandma’s house for 2 weeks.  Hmmmm.  I am so torn!  Good health and adequate rest (sounds really divine) or the multi-tasking insanity of juggling all the things I love to do.  😉

    • My dilemma exactly! I could get to bed early, but the baby would still wake me up, and the blog wouldn’t get written, and the house would be (and is) a mess…. sigh.

  9. Would a sleep mask for your eyes work?

    • It helps, but complete darkness is best if possible.

  10. Thanks!  This was the nudge I needed!  I’ve got into to some bad habits lately and now am regularly still awake at 2am, I do feel tired at 10 pm but just power through, not surprisingly my weight is out of control and I’m low.  I live in the far north of scotland and some days here it just isn’t getting very light so I’m hoping that after the shortest day things will improve.  Meantime I’m off to plan tonight and winding down earlier.  I’ll take the challenge gladly!  PKG x

  11. Hey Katie: first, did going to full black out affect you negatively at first? My son and I cosleep and we’re both experiencing restless nights and weird ass dreams since blacking out. And next: what do you do in the morning? Isn’t the idea to wake slowly with the rising sun? That’s how we’ve awoken in the past. With so much darkness we’re kind of jarred awake scrambling to see what time it is.  Just curious. Not trying to be contentious. Thanks!

    • Good questions! The transition was a little tough for me, and I found out that I actually needed about 9 hours of sleep or more to feel rested. They make sunshine alarm clocks, and I’ve been hoping to eventually try one out, but haven’t yet. I know the feeling of being jarred awake though… if it weren’t for hungry kids asking for breakfast, I could probably even sleep a couple more hours most day…

  12. Yeah, but that’s what I mean…isn’t the theory to be completely dark…as in to mimic times before we had such a large amount of unnatural light? But isn’t that just not so on the opposite end of night/darkness. If you lived in a cave wouldn’t the sunlight wake you, naturally?  So while it’s more “naturally” dark for nighttime, doesn’t it make it unnaturally dark in the morning? Just wondering your thoughts on that. I too, wake up because my son’s body clock is set at O’Dark Hundred, so it’s not an ‘issue’ per se.

  13. Ah, sleep… It’s so important! Not only because of all the very valid points you’re making in this article, but also on account of inflammation in the body – which is probably what causes the heart attacks and cancer to begin with. I’m highly sensitive, and if I wake up to early, that inflammation causes a feverish aching in my whole body, making it hard to fall asleep again, and the bad spiral is a fact. I would love for it to be completely dark when I sleep, too, but knowing that the moonlight actually also affects menstrual cycle hormones, I’m dreaming of a life without that glary streetlight shining in on my bed.

  14. i love the idea of this…..i just don’t know if i could pull it off! – i share a room w/ a younger sister, and she and our other brother’s are *never* in bed (sleeping that is) before 10:30pm. – that’s why i think it would be so challenging!

  15. What to do when sleep is interrupted?  I am overweight and I believe it is from lack of sleep.  It is very hard for me to get to sleep, usually takes about an hour or more then when I do sleep, I usually wake within a couple of hours and can’t get back to sleep for quite a while.  estimate that i get about 4 hours of rest a night. I also have rls (restless leg syndrome) and take med for it but I don’t like the way it makes me feel.  my muscles and joints are always hurting leaving me tired and depressed.  any help? rose 

  16. It sounds wonderful but reality is with a baby that keeps me up at all hours of night I’ll prob croak from sleep deprivation. I can’t remember what its like not to b tired. My biggest challenge is trying to fall back asleep after being waken. By the time I fall back asleep my baby is waking again. I’m tired all the time so I want to eat for energy. Sigh….its a vicious cycle

  17. Hi. I find all your information on how to get a good sleep very useful. However, my job as a flight stewardess is causing so much havoc on my sleep patterns that I find it hard to train myself to get my significant power naps. I do associate my lack of energy and my low immune system to lack of sleep and rest. I wonder how I can help myself to getting a good rest given my situation. And how I can train myself to get those power naps before a night flight.

    • Jean Perez, I don’t know if this info will help, but it might be worth looking into:

      I’ve read a couple articles on sleep cycles that differ from what we typically think is the norm (one solid block of sleep). There were a few different kinds, from two smaller chunks, to a short block with a long nap, to the intense (but one I wish I could do) four 20 minute naps over the course of twenty four hours. As stated in these articles (and it sounds logical) not everyone will prosper on all cycles. I really do wish I could do the four little naps, though… imagine how much time I could save… Hehe. 🙂

      This is something I got into when trying to find out why I can’t nap for shorter than three hours. And not even this answered it, unfortunately. Any time I lay down, I have to make sure I have three hours I can block off. Getting woken before then is one of the most physically awful things in the world for me. I’m groggy, sometimes for hours after, and feel like I’ve had a giant bandaid ripped off my brain. Whether I slept through the whole previous night and am well rested or not, it’s three hours minimum or no go.

      But going back to the cycles thing, I’ve discovered that I can break my sleeping into two three hour sleeps in the span of twenty four hours, and that is the minimum I need to function properly. There seems to be flexibility in where I can use them – sometimes I’ll sleep in the evening, wake up and work through the night, then sleep again in the morning, sometimes I’ll sleep in the wee hours and then again through lunch – and it always works out fine as long as I get three hours at a time.

      The point I’m trying to make is that maybe power naps aren’t for you. There might be something else that works instead. For example, if I was the one in your place, I’d be finding myself three hour chunks of time before and after night shifts. I think that would work famously for me. Maybe your own cycle has an equally odd quirk to it, or a rather mundane key that just needs to be found? 🙂

      Whether this points you in the right direction or not, I hope you find your answer. 🙂

      Sweet dreams!

  18. Hi! Enjoyed reading an article with the opinion that sleep and diet can go hand in hand.

    For my two cents… or four… or ten… Here’s what I can add:

    There is a free program you can download from the internet called flux. It runs in the background on your computer and it’s scheduled to change the lighting of your screen every evening and every morning, taking out the blue light during hours of darkness and replacing it with a warmer hue. Let me tell you, speaking from well over a year of use (possibly over two years by now, maybe), it’s a beautiful program and a blessing. No more eye strain, no more intense feeling of wakefulness despite having an exhausted body.

    For those that leave their smart phones running at night (another no-no, but sometimes can’t be helped), there are free alarm clock apps you can download that will wake you up slowly. The one I use on my android is Alarm Clock Free by ihandy inc – it’s free and easy as pie to use. It’s easier to use than the conventional clock radio I had before. You can change the sound of your alarm to something gentle and pleasant, you can set it to vibrate instead of sound, and (the best feature in my opinion) you can set it so that the sound starts off softly and gradually increases until you shut it off. Traditional alarm clocks used to have me out of bed and in a kung fu stance with heart racing in under a second (setting the volume lower wouldn’t wake me up at all), but this way I’m roused gradually and my morning stress is at an all-time low. 😉

    For years I often slept lucidly – aware of what was happening in the room, lucidly dreaming, or just staying at the midway point between awake and asleep. Once I was tested for food sensitivities and cut them out and started taking magnesium for the amazingly debilitating muscle cramps I was getting (in adductors and sartorius, even!! honey, you don’t KNOW what pain is!!), I started sleeping through the night and waking up without being able to recall anything. Memory loss? A sure sign I was out!

    Sleep can be a tricky one, can’t it. And what works for one might not work for another, in some regards. But in all cases it’s so important! It’s worth learning the intricacies of your own personal cycle so you can maximize the benefit sleep can bring.

    • I read your comment, Julie, and went immediately to Google to find the program and downloaded it! I love it already!! My screen is a lovely soft pink now! 🙂 I wondered how this would work for us way up here in the north (I live in northern BC in Canada where it stay light out in the summer until after 11 pm during the summer!) but it goes from the local time of sunset, which is much earlier. So I’m very pleased with the program already, thank you!

  19. Hey, just giving additional info. I started looking into the glasses from Uvex, and I found this. It’s the wavelength study done for each filter they use. I found it useful because I always like to check up on products, so here ya go!

    http://www.uvex.us/uploadedFiles/Uvex_Lens_Tech_Broch(1).pdf

  20. If you think you have a challenge trying to sleep between 10pm and 2am, try being someone who works during a chunk of those hours. The advice about when to sleep is great if you work normal person hours like 9 to 5, but I work 2pm to 11pm and after I get off work I’m wide awake and not feeling in the least bit sleepy for hours, pretty much the sun is starting to rise by the time I feel at all sleepy. And even when I worked days I still couldn’t fall asleep before midnight. I honestly feel like I get the best sleep when I work evenings (assuming no interruptions due to noise, of course).

    I’ve actually wondered about this, has anyone really studied if the circadian rhythm may adjust or change for people who consistently are awake during the night because of a job or other cause on a regular basis? I’d be curious to know this because it’s horribly frustrating to see all this advice saying when you should sleep, but plenty of people can’t sleep then because they are at work and not like they could change things and they still feel well rested even when sleeping during the day. In fact I get less bouts of insomnia when I work nights than when I work days.

  21. Unfortunately I work night shifts (9 pm to 4 or 5 am sometimes later and I can’t fall asleep until 6 or 7 in the morning after) three nights a week 🙁 I hate doing this and am trying to find another job but at the moment cannot afford to quit unless I have another job, I make little as is. Is there anything I can do to sleep better? I know my bad sleep issues are making me feel terrible every day as well as my severe tmj and teeth grinding issues

  22. Enjoyed your post and appreciate your advice on sleep. I was trying to better understand it to share with others and I could use some help tracking down the source for the CDC study. The link goes to another blog post which does discuss Dr. Stevens’ work but doesn’t provide the specific details you cited such as the profoundly blind being protected from the effects of light at night, but the partially cited who are sensitive to light still being impacted by it. What I found elsewhere on the web seemed to suggest that Dr. Stevens theory has gained little traction in the scientific community since he first proposed it in 1987. And in a 2011 note, Dr. Steven seems to have reduced the scope of his theory to simply explaining breast cancer, since other causes sufficiently explain other cancers (http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/07420528.2011.606945). There still seems to be plenty of consensus that we’re better off sleeping in the dark and avoiding electronics, but I’m wondering if Dr. Stevens’ LAN theory about the way that this is linked to cancer is now too speculative to share with others. Anything you could do to point me in the right direction would be appreciated. Cheers.

  23. I need a solution for smoke detector lights in our bedrooms! I’ve been amazed at how bright they are but anything I’ve read says to not cover the light or it won’t work. Any suggestions??

  24. We’ve always used blackout shades. It helps the children sleep longer. Do any studies consider the fact that infants and toddlers are nursing a lot at night and have been since the beginning of time? Sleep quality is often less than ideal for mothers. Or that many people have odd work hours? Information about exact hours of sleep to stay healthy and disease free, could really make a hypochondriac out of someone. It’s just not a possibility for everyone, including you! I guess I’ll try to play catch up in my old age 🙂

  25. Suggestions for temporary black out shades that are easily removed during the day but don’t need to be installed? We live in apartment and the black out shades that do not need to be installed keep it totally dark even during the day and we can’t open the windows. Thanks!

    • If you’re looking for a suggestion, mine is to buy the material for the curtains and sew up the size you need (or purchase something similar if sewing isn’t your bag), and a special kind of wall velcro. We can buy it in many different stores here, and I can’t seem to find the name of it, sorry, but it has a tab it’s attached to, and when you want to remove it you only need to pull the tab and it stretches and releases from the wall, leaving no marks behind. Sew some velcro onto the curtain and velcro it to the wall! 🙂 Each large tab is supposed to be able to hold 12 lbs worth, and I have hung maaaany picture frames, from small to large, with it, without there ever being a problem.

      • Thank you so much for that suggestion and quick reply! It is a great one. By the Wall Velcro do you mean those command strips? I’m also thinking of getting the “stick on black-out” shades and velcroing them. However I am not sure how this will function. Sewing isn’t really in my bag at all :(.

        • Yes, I certainly did mean those! I couldn’t for the life of me remember the name of the ones where you pull the little tab and they just stretch right off, but it’s Command indeed. 😀

          Now, I pride myself on my sewing – I didn’t hurt myself last time I sat at the machine, and I only broke it twice in the last year (major improvements!) – but there was a time in my past when staples were my go-to for connecting things. And hot glue. I’ve made so many Halloween costumes with hot glue that I can tell you honestly, it’s a viable solution for many, many things.

          In this case, though, you’ll want to go with staples to fix the velcro onto the curtain, as hot glue might melt the velcro strips. If it doesn’t look pretty on the room-facing side, hot glue some lace onto it. Then sprinkle with glitter. 😉 To reinforce the material so it doesn’t tear at the staples when you take the curtain off, roll it once or twice like a hem before fixing the velcro to it.

          I don’t know how fashionable you need your curtain to be, but as far as utilitarian goes, this is as functional as it gets. Hope it helps. 🙂

          • I’m actually still missing the sewing machine and my button sticking leaves a lot to the imagination. ;). Regardless, I try and seem to find a way. I went to home depot to purchase the curtains and command strips and I came across a new product called redi-shade. You can stick them at the top and then they have little clips to hold up your shades if you want light to come in. It’s working for tonight!!!

            Thank you and thank you for the suggestion. It prompted me to go to the store and investigate and I found something very utilitarian. Now I just have to figure out what to do with our light in our dinning room. The kid’s room is situated in such a way that small amount of this light enters under their door. It doesn’t matter once we go to sleep but it’s there when we are awake. Regardless, a lot less light in their room and so happy and appreciative!!!