It’s Labor Day, a Day to REST

Thank you, American workers!

We live in a very productivity-oriented culture, which demands that we be constantly on the go, constantly achieving. It’s almost a badge of honor to have more than is humanly possible to do.

However, as a physician, I can tell you that the human body was not designed to be “on” all the time. There’s a reason why we must sleep at night—and it’s not just for beauty.

As I explain in my book, Conquering Cultural Stress, “Just about every system in the body is affected by the quality and amount of sleep you get at night. Sleep can dictate how much you eat, whether or not you can fight off infections, and how well you can cope with stress. The combined offenders of stress and sleep deprivation have been proven to steal precious water away from cells. This helps explain why ‘looking tired’ typically means you’re looking older and more dried out. Your skin’s barrier function has been compromised and you’re losing more water not only from your skin cells but from every cell in your body.

“Personal experience alone tells you what sleeplessness can do: make you look haggard and feel moody, depressed, and downright negative about everything in life. It can also encourage you to overeat, drink too much caffeine, scream at your spouse and kids, and dodge workouts and sex because you’re just too tired.”

Among the many consequences of poor sleep are hypertension, confusion, memory loss, difficulty learning new information or tasks, weight gain, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and depression. That’s because sleep cycles are intimately tied to hormonal secretions that govern everything from metabolism to mood to cellular repair and renewal.

Here are some other benefits that underscore the importance of sleep:

Muscle repair. Athletes understand the risk of over-training. If they don’t give their muscles a chance to rest and repair themselves, their performance will suffer. When we overdo our exercise regimen we also overstress our adrenals, a central part of our endocrine system. This leaves us hormonally unbalanced, which causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which promotes belly fat storage and results in fatigue, insomnia and musculoskeletal breakdown.

Bone health. Healthy bones require more than calcium. They also need healthy marrow—the spongy material in the center of our long bones that contains stem cells responsible for producing red blood cells and immune cells. Adequate sleep is important for maintaining healthy bone marrow.

Cardiovascular health. Sleep deprivation stresses the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares us for “fight or flight.” In response, the body releases of greater amounts of the hormone adrenaline, priming us to take immediate action, which also quickens heart rate, making it work harder and putting you at greater risk of heart attack or stroke.

Immune system repair and recovery. When we’re constantly on the go, our immune systems are constantly working to repair muscles and joints. Sleep (and periods of rest from training) are what give your immune system time to catch up with all the repairs your body needs, preventing future injuries.

Mental acuity. We all know how hard it is to pay attention when we’re struggling to stay awake. The brain needs healthy fats—and rest. Mental fatigue makes everything we try to do that much harder. Do yourself a favor: rest!

Weight. Sleep deprivation also disrupts the body’s balance of ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that stimulate and suppress appetite, respectively. The body attempts to compensate for lack of sleep by increasing appetite.

What to do?

For starters, this Labor Day, develop a healthy Sleep Plan:

Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day of the week, including weekends. This helps to establish a stable biorhythm of rest and waking hours.

Set aside at least 30 minutes before bed to unwind and prepare for sleep. Avoid stimulating activities—including disturbing or exciting movies, television dramas, or newscasts. Instead, try a warm bath, light stretching, or a cup of chamomile or valerian tea. Once in bed, do only light reading; nothing that will trigger anxieties.

Don’t let your “to-do list” take over. Early in the evening, write out the tasks you want to complete before the end of the week and then put them out of your mind. If they intrude anyway, remind yourself, “Everything will be okay. I’m tired now, but will sleep and have a productive day tomorrow. I’m relaxed and at peace. My body needs sleep and is ready for it.”

Avoid caffeine after 2:00 p.m., limit your alcohol intake at dinner, and remember that digesting a heavy meal too close to bedtime can interrupt your sleep. If you need a bedtime snack, choose healthy carbs and a little fat, such as a piece of toast and peanut butter, or a handful of walnuts.

Make self-care part of your bedtime routine, supplementing the tools your body needs to repair itself. For example, consider a moisturizer and/or supplements with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and take them at night. Ingesting antioxidants—like that handful of walnuts, or an Omega 3 supplement—also floods the body with repair nutrients.

Try aromatherapy to help relax: a lavender sachet, or a whiff of rose, vanilla, or lemongrass oil will soothe you, calming heart rate, balancing hormones, and sending you blissfully off to dream land.

Practice mindful breathing. Take a long, slow, deep breath through the nose, followed by a long, slow exhale. Breathing through the nose is key. This type of breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for normal body repair and maintenance functions, including digestion, mood, sleep, and cardiovascular and mental health. At the same time, when the parasympathetic nervous system is operating, the sympathetic nervous system—which keeps us in “fight or flight” mode—shuts down. You can’t digest your food and be primed for danger at the same time. So breathe deeply and sleep well.

Happy Labor Day!

For more tips on conquering Cultural Stress, read my book!


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