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Sleeping My Way to the Top

Eighteen months ago, I received a wake up call while vacationing at the Gulf. Everything in my world changed in an instant. A heart attack will do that to you.

SInce the quadruple by-pass surgery, I began a program of healthy life style changes.. That wake-up call ( that came more like a wake-up scream) jolted me into recognitipn that despite my "younger than most heart patient's" age, I had some major changes to adopt. And adopt them I did.

I began exercising daily for at least 30 minutes of cardio, and 10,000 steps. Amazingly, with that one simple life change, I watched my resting heart rate decline from a high mid 80's to a new normal of between 65-71. My endurance also improved to the point that I was not winded after 25 minutes on the elliptical. (Previously I gave up after about 3 minutes). Even my food choices changed. I ditched red meat; choosing chicken, turkey , fish and seafood for my protein. Fats and carbs were restricted choices as well.

Needless to say, that on the visit last week with my cardiologist, he praised my efforts and took me off of the blood thinners and high blood pressure medicines.

Yet, with all of those changes, I had one disappointing result. After the surgery. I lost almost 30 pounds. And then the weight loss stopped.. For me to reach my healthiest self, I needed to lose another 30 pounds. But, the plateau has lasted several months, which has left me seriously frustrated.

Always looking for answers, I started researching barriers to healthy weight loss, And I found something very interesting. Consistent stress increases cortisol which inhibits weight loss and can lead to belly fat. Also, insomnia and lack of regular sleep patterns can cause a rise in cortisol production. Hmmmmm? Insomnia? Stress? Why those are two constant companions of mine.

Most of us in the social work profession are very familiar with the two headed beast: Stress and Insomnia. We deal with stressful situations daily, working with a trauma population. And I can attest to the fact that a large percentage of Social Workers suffer from a continuing of sleep interruption. I have heard the complaints on multiple occasions. So, the research caught my eye. NOT just for my own situation but also as a pre-emptive call to other Social Workers.

Just how important is sleep?

Apparently good healthy sleep patterns have multiple benefits for the human body.

  1. Keeps your heart healthy. Lack of sleep is linked to worsening of blood pressure and cholesterol, which are risk factors for heart disease and strokes.

  2. Sleep reduces stress. Now this is a bit of a two-edged sword. When I am stressed I cannot sleep, but when I do not sleep I am stressed. Sound like a problem?

  3. Sleep reduces inflammation and reduces risks of illnesses associated with inflammation.

  4. Sleep improves your memory. I heard the best pod-cast on Science Friday regarding how the brain utilizes sleep to build your memory. Fascinating stuff. But people with chronic insomnia can experience trouble with their memories.

  5. Sleep can help you lose weight. (Bingo!!!) So researchers found that those who sleep less hours every night are more likely to be overweight or obese. The theory is that the lack of sleep impacts the balances of hormones in the body that affect appetite.

  6. Sleep helps the body to heal itself. While you sleep, your body is producing protein which are the building blocks of new cells. Also impacted are chemicals like serotonin which regulate mood.

Through my research, I realized that while I cannot blame my weight plateau solely on insomnia (dang it!) the research reiterated the need for all those in the helping professions to develop a comprehensive self care plan for themselves. And for that plan to include taking steps to improve the quality of their sleep.

Some steps suggested are:

  1. Go to bed at same time every day. Your body will start to signal you once your circadian rhythms are established

  2. Wake up at same time

  3. Pray, Meditate or practice mindfulness right before bed. Picture the problems of the day as a stone.. Put the stone down with a promise to yourself to pick it back up in the morning.

  4. Practice breathing deeply

  5. Go to sleep

Since starting the above steps, I have actually seen an improvement in my sleep quality. My plan of care ( to reduce stress and continue healthy weight loss) includes adding strength training, taking steps to improve sleeping and practicing mindfulness. I plan to be at the top of my game: body, mind and spirit!

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