With all the developments in modern medicine and technology, you’d think that we’d have come up with a way to pack in more into 24 hours. But unfortunately, that’s not the case. Research is showing that we still need as much sleep as we ever did, and that sleep deprivation can be a contributing factor in developing many ‘modern illnesses,’ including obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
Studies have shown that sleep deprivation affects PCOS by causing insulin resistance, making us crave simple sugars and carbohydrates, as well as increasing inflammation and increasing stress hormone levels.
How can lack of sleep cause PCOS?
I thought it was genetic!
PCOS is when your body overproduces ‘male’ hormones like testosterone, and is a ‘modern’ disease. Like most modern diseases, there is definitely a genetic component to PCOS, but the discovery of epigenetics has proven that these genes have to have the right environmental factors present in order to be turned on.
You can think of genes as the loaded gun, but environment pulls the trigger.
70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance and inflammation, which is causing them to overproduce testosterone. So things that cause insulin resistance are the environmental factors that are pulling the trigger.
What is insulin resistance?
Insulin is your storage hormone. When you eat carbohydrates and protein, your body detects a rise in blood sugar. Insulin is the hormone that is then released to store the blood sugar away in your muscles for later use. Insulin is excreted by the pancreas and binds to a receptor on the cell to open it up, similar to the way a key opens a door. However, when the key has been used too much (eating lots of high sugar foods), or there is chronic low grade inflammation, the lock starts to get a bit worn and clogged up; the key no longer fits. This is insulin resistance.
Consistently high levels of insulin cause your ovaries to overproduce testosterone, and this is how it causes PCOS.
How does inadequate sleep cause insulin resistance and PCOS?
Inadequate sleep causes…
…you to crave more sugar
Sugary energy drinks, Snickers bars, croissants, doughnuts, and pizza all contain a lot of sugar. Eating them causes your blood sugar (and insulin levels) to rise, and if you have insulin resistance your insulin just can’t cope with such a large amount of sugar. However, these are exactly the kinds of foods that you crave when you’re lacking sleep.
A really interesting study of the brain in sleep deprivation found that a lack of sleep impairs us from making complex decisions (like whether that doughnut is really a good choice) and instead activates the part of the brain that’s involved with desire and cravings. The result is that we crave more sugar and simple carbs that give instant gratification.
Not only does lack of sleep cause you to crave sugary foods, which leads to insulin resistance, but it also actually decreases your cells sensitivity to insulin. One study showed that just one week of sleeping only 5 hours per night can reduce insulin sensitivity by 24%.
Chronic inflammation is one of the biggest causes of insulin resistance, to the point where scientists think that inflammation and insulin resistance go hand in hand. Studies have shown that getting only 4 hours of sleep a night for 10 nights caused a 5 fold increase in inflammatory markers.
…an increase in cortisol
Cortisol is your long term stress hormone. One of cortisol’s roles is to release sugar into the blood, in case you’re going to have to run, jump or fight (a stressful event in our ancestors days). However, if you have insulin resistance, then this extra sugar is going to make the insulin resistance worse and causes increased stress hormone levels, not just immediately following, but also the next evening.
What’s the treatment?
Obviously getting adequate sleep is the answer, but what is considered adequate is very individual. Adequate sleep means that you’re waking up feeling refreshed, preferably before your alarm. For me this means 8.5-9 hours, but for you 7 might be enough. Test waking up without an alarm to see how long you need.
But what if you go to bed early but you just can’t sleep? I know what it’s like to be absolutely exhausted and unable to sleep. You can be feeling tired all afternoon, but then as soon as your head hits the pillow, it suddenly wants all the answers to life’s great questions, including (but not limited to): ‘What should we have for dinner tomorrow?’, ‘Did I actually book that Airbnb for next week, or just look at the photos?’, ‘How does the internet actually work?’ and ‘What did she mean in that meeting this morning?’
To help you with this, here are my 7 tips to help you sleep like an absolute boss, which you can find in a downloadable format here:
1) Get Regular
One of the best ways to train your body to sleep well is to go to bed and get up at more or less the same time every day, even on weekends and days off! This regular rhythm will make you feel better and will give your body something to work from.
2) Ditch the Caffeine
This means no caffeine after midday for some people, but if you are hyper-stimulated by caffeine, or have high stress hormones, this means none at all.
This doesn’t just mean coffee, but also tea, for some people dark chocolate, and of course cola drinks, but you aren’t drinking them anyway, are you?
3) Keep the Bed for Sleep…and Sex!
Do you use your bed to watch Game of Thrones in peace, pay the bills, or read your emails that you couldn’t deal with at work?
Don’t do this!
You want your body to associate bed with sleep, so don’t use it for anything else (apart from sex) or it won’t learn this connection.
4) No Screens for 2 Hours Before Bed
The blue light emitted from screens impacts our circadian rhythm. The best practice is to turn off all screens 2 hours before bed. However, I know this isn’t always possible, so if you really have to do some life admin in the evenings, make sure you download an app that removes the blue light. The latest iOS has this as a default, so just make sure it’s turned on, and if you are on Android, you can download apps. I use an application called f.lux for my Macbook.
5) Meditate for 10 Minutes Before Bed
Do you lie in bed at night thinking of all the things that you didn’t do that day, going over a passive aggressive conversation you had with a colleague thinking, “Damn, I wish I’d just walked away ”, or that you must remember to take the steak out of the freezer for dinner tomorrow night.
One of the best ways to stop all these thoughts swirling in your brain is to meditate for 10 minutes before bed. This gets your mind out of thinking in the past or future and gets you focused on the present moment of sleeping.
6) Keep a Pen and Paper Beside Your Bed
So sometimes you really do need to remember to get the steak out of the freezer, and who am I to stop you from meal prepping.
But instead of lying there thinking, “Must not forget to take steak out,” over and over again, just write it down, get it out of your mind, and get to sleep
7) Get Your Phone Out of Your room and Make it Black
Aside from the obvious disruption to your sleep when your Whatsapp chat is going crazy, the blue light emitted from your phone is enough to disrupt sleep.
So instead of charging your phone by your bed, keep it in the kitchen and get a manual alarm clock instead (no flashing LED light). You’ll also not be able to lie there scrolling.
Additionally, get some blackout curtains and make your room properly dark.
Clare Goodwin is a degree qualified nutritionist and exercise scientist who helps women reverse their PCOS, using evidence based information.
Formerly from New Zealand, Clare moved to London in 2014 and now has an entirely Skype based clinic so that she can help everyone from Aberdeen to Auckland, through her website www.thepcosnutritionist.com