Nurses, did you know that getting enough sleep can keep you thin? Scientific studies show that there is a direct link between sleep deprivation and weight gain. There are many hormones that are affected by sleep, and most of them control our appetite, fat, carbohydrate metabolism and the growth of lean muscle. Knowing what these hormones do can encourage you to make a greater effort to get the sleep your body needs to keep your weight in control and to improve your overall health.
During sleep, your body secretes serotonin and dopamine. When your body doesn’t get enough sleep, it finds different ways to compensate for the low levels of these hormones while you are awake. The way it typically does this is by sending out signals for sugary foods because these foods cause an immediate release of serotonin and dopamine.
Lack of sleep also increases hormones which increase your appetite. Ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite and makes you feel hungry, is released in excess so that you feel hungry even if your body has enough food. When sleep deprived, your body is slower to release the hormone leptin, which gives you that full, satisfied feeling after eating. The result of these two hormone imbalances is that you crave sugar and still feeling hungry after eating, which leads to overeating.
But that’s not all. Growth hormone, which is responsible for regulating the body’s fat and muscle proportions, is released mainly while sleeping. (If you have kids, you actually may have seen them grow overnight!) Sleep loss decreases growth hormone levels, which in turn slows our ability to burn fat and increase lean muscle.
And one more thing happens when we don’t get enough sleep—lack of sleep can trigger the release of cortisol, often referred to as “the stress hormone”. This hormone promotes the deposit of fat, mainly in the abdominal or belly region.
All of this information explains why night shift workers often experience weight gain. One simple way to combat the disadvantage of working the night shift is to make sure you come to work with nutritious meals and snacks planned out ahead of time. Also, make plans ahead of time for immediately after you get off work so that you are not tempted to grab fast food or go out to eat. The key to handling night shift hunger is to realize that your natural hunger and fullness cues are not accurate, and to keep to an eating schedule you have planned out in advance.
During a night shift, plan on eating a substantial meal every four hours and one snack. Make the meals on the lighter side, such as a whole wheat calzone made with spinach, bell peppers, sautéed onion and garlic, and low fat mozzarella cheese. Another good option would be a chicken stir fry with brown or wild rice. Whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce and a few meat balls is also a great choice. Notice in all of these meals whole grains are a big part of the meal. Whole grains will satisfy the craving for carbohydrate, but will keep you from eating too much. Whole grains and vegetables will also keep your bowels regular in spite of a crazy schedule at work.
So how much sleep do you need? While everyone is different, aim for getting an average of 8 hours a night (some may need only 7 hours while some as much as 9). If you are unsure how many hours you need, do an experiment during a time when you can sleep as much as you want for four nights in a row. Record how many hours you sleep the fourth night. After the fourth night of unlimited sleep you should be naturally awaking in the morning feeling refreshed. The hours of sleep you received the fourth night will be the approximate hours of sleep you should try to get every night.
Don’t let lack of sleep set the stage for overeating and weight gain! Take control, nurses—starting tonight!