Insomnia Heightens Obesity Risk in Kids
> 1/2/2008 1:49:27 PM

Obesity and the overly sedentary lifestyle that so often accomodates it have been linked to multiple sleep disorders in the past—obese individuals suffer from a notably greater prevalence of insomnia, fitful sleep and sleep apnea, the dangerous condition in which breathing ceases for a period due to the obese body's difficulty in maintaining the regular flow of oxygen through obstructed or constricted airways. The body of a child, still in its developmental stages, requires more sleep than most, and a new study on sleep patterns in young kids reinforces the fact that this corrosive relationship works both ways: lack of sleep also facilitates weight gain.

A large part of this equation stems from the very purpose of the sleep act, recovery and rejuvination. Like an insufficiently charged battery, people who do not get enough sleep run at less than maximum efficiency. Building a "sleep deficit" after nights wracked by insomnia leaves one with decimated mental and physical energy, compromising the body's functions and often leaving one too tired to exercise, work productively, or perform academically. But this study found notable differences in the accumulation of weight between obese kids and their control group counterparts even after controlling data for levels of physical activity and time spent in front of the small screen.

Researchers followed 519 children from birth until the age of 7, noting sleep patterns, environmental variables and related health complications. Their findings: while nightly sleep patterns bore little influence on intelligence assessments and behavioral disorders like ADHD, children who averaged less than 9 hours of sleep per night were significantly more likely to be overweight by age 7. Other detrimental effects did exist, but they were more coincidental: researchers linked a lack of sleep with increased emotional impulsiveness and more dramatic shifts in mood, but that correlation was nowhere near as strong as that observed between insomnia and obesity.

The problem seems, at its base, to be a hormonal and metabolic one. Previous studies have linked sleep deprivation with abnormally low levels of leptin, a protein that serves as the body's organic appetite suppressant. The relationship between leptin and weight is still relatively unknown, but because the body operates differently when one is asleep, allowing these hormonal reserves to build up while the body rests, patients with insomnia cannot produce enough of the hormone, compromising the body's ability to contain the appetite. Affected patients can then continue to eat long after their hunger should be satiated.

Much of the associative relationship between sleep and weight can be deduced with common sense, but studies like this one can only serve to reinforce the absolute necessity of maintaining a consistent and satisfactory sleep pattern. The following fact may sound like mere fatalism regarding the "modern condition" of our 24/7 society, but average self-reported sleep times have declined consistently over the past 50 years, from nearly 8.5 hours in 1960 to just over 7 today. Sleep, despite its seeming inconvenience, is not something to be undervalued. An extra hour spent awake rather than sleeping each night could seriously compromise one's quality of life over time. Classic New Year's resolutions include "exercise more" and "eat less." Turns out that making a conscious effort to get more sleep could help one stick to both.

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