You Snooze, You Win
How good sleep habits help you live longer, lose weight and look great
Is there any real science behind the myth of beauty sleep? More and more experts say yes.
Scientific studies haven’t looked at how sleep affects appearance directly—for example, the way the lack of it impacts skin renewal—but we do know that our bodies repair cells and tissues while we sleep. But if you can’t sleep well, what are you going to do?
As we rush around our cities to work, to play, to party, and to meet all of life’s demands, we often miss out on badly needed beauty sleep. When our heads finally hit the pillow, our minds whirl out of control, or our spouses snore, or our kids call out for comfort in the night.
Instead of drifting off to dreamland, we toss and turn and then wake up the next morning looking bedraggled, with a sallow complexion, sagging posture, and puffy, dark rimmed eyes.
“Everyone has had the experience of not getting enough sleep and looking terrible the next day,” says Michael Twery, PhD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Our mothers told us to get a good night’s sleep to avoid catching a cold, and while that certainly seems to be the case, Twery says, our looks may suffer as well. “Resistance to infection seems to decline when we don’t get adequate sleep, and that doesn’t help our appearance.”
But is there any real science behind the myth of beauty sleep? More and more experts say yes.
Scientific studies haven’t looked at how sleep affects appearance directly—for example, the way the lack of it impacts skin renewal—but we do know that our bodies repair cells and tissues while we sleep. Research also supports the notion that poor sleep patterns lead to poor health—and poor health can make us look a little less beautiful.
“You need sleep to look good because of the way it affects muscle growth, body weight, your risk for heart disease, your ability to age well, and so many other things,” says Sara Mednick, PhD, author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life. Even a quick catnap reduces the effects of stress by lowering the hormone cortisol, and stress plays a major role in aging.
More importantly, in a study of more than 23,000 adults conducted at Harvard School of Public Health, those who took regular naps had a 37 percent lower risk of dying from a heart attack than people who didn’t nap, and taking occasional naps lowered the risk by 12 percent.
When we fall short of our optimum eight hours, napping helps our bodies carry out the regenerative tasks that only occur during sleep to keep us healthy, alert, and, yes, looking our best.
Forty winks and weight loss
Sleep contributes as much to our well-being as eating right and exercising, but the average American adult sleeps less than seven hoursa night, compared to nine hours in 1910.
Sleeping only five hours a night may change our appearance because of the link between obesity and insufficient sleep. Lack of sleep lowers leptin levels and raises ghrelin, two hormones that regulate appetite, according to a study at Stanford University. Skimping on sleep also increases the risk of developing type-2 diabetes, a lifestyle disease linked to weight gain.
“It sounds counterintuitive because you think you’re burning more calories by staying awake and active,” says Helene A. Emsellem, MD, author of Snooze… or Lose! 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits. “But you need to sleep to properly metabolize the calories you take in during the day.”
Although not an official disease, chronic sleeplessness carries an annual health care cost of $16 billion and costs $50 billion in lost productivity. With numbers like these, an entire industry has emerged to treat the estimated 70 million sleep-deprived Americans.
The big news in the snooze trade? The hottest sleep peddlers aren’t pharmaceutical companies or sleep clinics, but destination spas.
According to a recent report by the Millennium Research Group, spas are quickly waking up to the marketing potential of sleep. “On some level, people anticipate that a spa will address more than a single dimension of their lives,” says Karen Koffler, MD, medical director of Canyon Ranch, in Miami, Florida.
Sleep spas provide a tranquil setting, give people a break from their usual routines and help them identify the unconscious patterns that contribute to troubled sleep.
“We help people see the benefits of living with not getting things done, or with delegating more, or cutting out what’s not essential so they can add more sleep,” says Koffler.
As you would expect, a sleep spa experience feels more like a retreat at a swanky hotel than a typical doctor’s visit. At Canyon Ranch, for example, you can order a sleep enhancement/insomnia relief package; a snoring/sleep apnea evaluation; or an all-night polysomnography (a formal overnight study to assess problems such as multiple awakenings, snoring, sleep apnea, and daytime sleepiness).
For anywhere from $140 to $2,275, a staff of sleep professionals will attempt to decipher your every dozing dilemma.
Cosmetic brands have gotten in on the act too, launching an array of sleep products to lull you into lullaby land. Although few of these have been tested for effectiveness, many sleep products contain lavender (Lavandula augustifolia), a proven treatment for insomnia, according to recent studies.
“These products are for busy people who want to pamper themselves to sleep but don’t necessarily want to spend too much money or go to a lot of trouble,” says Jill Phipps, co-owner of Joy of Sleep in Portland, Oregon. Whether or not sleep products actually work, the marketing trend seems to be growing, says Phipps.
Catching enough z’s may not be easy, but it’s one of the best—and cheapest—ways to enhance your health and, consequently, your appearance. “You can almost think of sleep as an alternative form of medicine,” says Emsellem.
No matter what strategy you choose, make time to nurture yourself with a good night’s sleep.
Savvy Sleep Strategies: How to sleep even in the city
Sleep on schedule
Timing affects your circadian rhythm, so if your weekday and weekend bedtimes differ by more than two hours, you may have trouble falling asleep on weeknights.
Avoid big meals before bedtime. Overloading the digestive system after 8 p.m. takes energy away from restorative tasks that occur during sleep. And go easy on alcohol, which can disrupt sleep in the second half of the night.
Turn off lights, computers, phones
The sleep hormone melatonin is sensitive to even low levels of light.
Get regular exercise, preferably in the afternoon
Research shows an afternoon workout improves the quality of nighttime sleep. And a fit body sleeps better than an unfit one, says sleep center director Helene A. Emsellem, MD, although results may take several weeks to kick in.
Try warm bath, some quiet music, a good book, or a few yoga stretches just before you climb into bed.
Take a nap
Napping won’t interfere with bedtime sleeping, says Sara Mednick, PhD, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, “as long as you don’t nap longer than an hour and a half and you leave a two-hour buffer between waking from a nap and going to sleep at night.
Note: I wrote this article on assignment for Health magazine.