For one week, a study in Louisville, KY gave 308 children, ages ranging from 4 to 10 years old, a bracelet to monitor their sleep. Results found that that the children with the least amount of sleep were 4.2 times more likely to have obesity.
Moreover Dr. Phyllis C. Zee, the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital reports:
"There is growing evidence for a link between sleep duration and childhood obesity… [P]erhaps even more important than sleep duration is the effect of day to day variability of sleep wake timing on weight regulation."
Most developed nations have an exploding childhood obesity epidemic, along with a growing number of scientists studying this unfortunate situation. But please don't misunderstand the featured article and come to the conclusion that lack of quality sleep is causing the childhood obesity epidemic.
Lack of quality sleep is a symptom of obesity, which also fuels a whole host of negative health consequences that are exacerbated by obesity, creating a vicious cycle of weight gain and worsening sleep patterns and increasing health problems.
Lack of quality sleep and sleep apnea used to be reserved mainly for obese middle-aged men, but not anymore.
How Lack of Sleep Impacts Your Child's Health
Your circadian rhythm has evolved over hundreds of generations to align your physiology with your environment. Your body clock is "set" to sleep at night and stay awake during daylight hours. If you are deprived of sleep, conflicting signals get sent to your body.
Too little sleep impacts your levels of thyroid and stress hormones, which in turn can affect your memory, immune system, heart and metabolism, and much more. Over time, lack of sleep can lead to:
- High blood sugar levels and an increased risk of diabetes -- Sleep-deprived subjects tend to eat more sweet and starchy foods rather than vegetables and dairy products. Researchers suspect these cravings stem from the fact that your brain is fueled by glucose (blood sugar); therefore, when lack of sleep occurs, your brain searches for carbohydrates. In short, sleep deprivation puts your body into a pre-diabetic state, and makes you feel hungry, even if you've already eaten.
- Weight gain -- When you are sleep deprived, your body decreases production of leptin, the hormone that tells your brain there is no need for more food. At the same time it increases levels of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger.
- Accelerated aging
- Hypertension (high blood pressure) and depression
- Increased risk of cancer by altering the balance of hormones in your body. (Tumors grow two to three times faster in laboratory animals with severe sleep dysfunctions)
So exactly how much sleep is optimal for a child?
Research appears to indicate that for normal adults, seven hours of sleep is optimal. But children are known to need more sleep than adults, and other conditions can affect the "optimal" amount of sleep, such as activity level. In fact, there is no "right" amount of sleep, especially when it comes to a growing child.
But if your child is obese, or exhausted much of the time, the chances are high that poor sleep patterns are a part of their life and adding to their problems.
Obesity and Deteriorating Children's Health
If your child is obese, they may not be getting the required sleep their young body needs, they are also setting themselves up for a lifetime of health issues and have a much greater risk of dying young.
According to an article in the New York Times:
A study that tracked thousands of children through adulthood found the heaviest youngsters were more than twice as likely to die prematurely, before age 55, of illness or a self-inflicted injury.
Youngsters with a condition called pre-diabetes were at almost double the risk of dying before 55, and those with high blood pressure were at some increased risk. But obesity was the factor most closely associated with an early death. Adults who had the highest body mass index scores as children were 2.3 times as likely to have died early as those with the lowest scores.
Addressing the underlying causes of childhood obesity can pay lifelong dividends, and in my opinion there is one clear leading cause of obesity in the US in general that simply must be addressed: Fructose.
Is Fructose to Blame for the Fat Child Epidemic?
Although the American Beverage Association claims there is "no association between high fructose corn syrup and obesity," a long lineup of scientific studies suggest otherwise.
- Dr. David Ludwig of Boston Children's Hospital did a study of the effects of sugar-sweetened drinks on obesity in children. He found that for each additional serving of a sugar-sweetened drink, both body mass index and odds of obesity increased in the children he studied.
- The Fizzy Drink Study in Christchurch, England explored the effects on obesity when soda machines were removed from schools for one year. In the schools where the machines were removed, obesity stayed constant. In the schools where soda machines remained, obesity rates continued to rise.
- In a recent study, 16 volunteers were fed a controlled diet including high levels of fructose. Ten weeks later, the volunteers had produced new fat cells around their hearts, livers and other digestive organs. They also showed signs of food-processing abnormalities linked to diabetes and heart disease. A second group of volunteers who were fed a similar diet, but with glucose replacing fructose, did not have these problems.
Please understand that while there are many contributing factors to childhood obesity, I am convinced that FRUCTOSE is the primary cause of the obesity epidemic in both children and adults. Sweetened beverages and processed foods are the main sources of fructose in the US diet.
For an in-depth understanding of just how fructose is destroying your health, and that of your children, please watch this excellent video lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig in its entirety (part 1, and part 2). Dr. Lustig's presentation on this subject really opened my eyes to this issue, followed closely by Dr. Richard Johnson, who is the chairman of medicine at the University of Colorado, who reinforced Dr. Lustig with his book The Sugar Fix: The High-Fructose Fallout That Is Making You Fat and Sick.
Once you review the sources mentioned above, I think you'll agree with me that limiting or eliminating fructose from your child's diet is the first step in combating obesity, and a great step towards improving your child's sleep patterns as well.
What is Conventional Medicine doing for Childhood Sleep Disorders?
Prescribing drugs, of course!
A recent study found that more than 75 percent of surveyed U.S. pediatricians have recommended over-the-counter sleep aids to children, and more than 50 percent had prescribed a sleep aid to some of their young patients.
One study even found that 81 percent of children's doctor visits for sleep problems included a prescription for a medication! Most prescribed for kids' sleep troubles were antihistamines, blood pressure drugs, benzodiazepines such as the sleeping pill Restoril, antidepressants, and sleeping pills like Ambien and Sonata.
You certainly do not need to go to medical school to understand that using drugs to help kids sleep is not their best option, as it in no way, shape or form addresses the underlying cause of poor sleep patterns and instead exposes kids to potentially serious medication side effects.
This "solution" from conventional medicine for poor childhood sleep patterns is an incredibly vicious, and dangerous, cycle.
Dangers of Sleeping Pills … and do They Even Work?
Giving sleeping pills to kids is a double-edged sword, one that brings with it serious risks and lack of evidence of effectiveness.
For starters, sleeping pills are notorious for being addictive, which means that once you want to stop taking them, you'll likely suffer withdrawal symptoms that could be worse than the initial insomnia. Some, such as Ambien, may also become less effective when taken for longer than two weeks.
Ambien may also make you want to eat while you're asleep -- and the sleep eating can include bizarre foods such as buttered cigarettes, salt sandwiches, and raw bacon.
Antidepressants, which are often used for sleep aids for kids, have been shown to CAUSE both suicidal and homicidal thoughts and behaviors. For example, seven recent school shootings were done by children who were either on antidepressants or going through withdrawal.
Even over-the-counter sleep aids can cause serious side effects, including liver failure from those that contain acetaminophen (Tylenol). They are also questionable at best when it comes to effectiveness.
What Can You do if Your Child Can't Sleep?
Sleeping pills and other medications do nothing to help the underlying reasons why your child is having trouble sleeping in the first place. This is likely why studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can treat insomnia better than drugs.
So if your child is both obese and having trouble sleeping, my advice is to go after the source of the problem, and here are the common culprits:
- Diet: Is your child eating large amounts of sugar or grains, or consuming sugary or caffeine-laden beverages like soda or fruit juice? Diet sodas and fruit juices are not any better. Cut these out first and your child will probably see results in stabilizing their weight, and they will probably sleep better right away.
- TV, Video Games and Other Distractions: Many kids stay up late watching TV, surfing the Web or playing video games, then have trouble falling asleep. Turning off the TV at a set time, or removing the TV and computer from your child's bedroom, should be another first on your list if you want to ensure a good night's sleep.
- Stress: As with adults, stress can both lead to overeating and also keep kids up at night. Is your child worrying about an upcoming test at school or having trouble with friends? Make sure you help them to address their worries. One proven, effective method of doing this is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) a form of psychological acupressure,, which I often recommend for stress relief for adults, but it can be used for kids, too.
- Exercise: If your child is sedentary, it could be impacting both their weight and their sleep patterns. On the other hand, exercising -- or playing tag outdoors, riding bikes, etc. -- for at least 30 minutes everyday can help your child stabilize their weight and even fall asleep. Exercise can also help your child release underlying anxieties that might impair sleep as well.
I also suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night's Sleep for 33 simple tips on improving your sleep and that of your children. Whether you are not able to fall asleep, wake up too often, or don't feel well rested when you wake up in the morning, these guidelines will provide you with various useful techniques to improve sleep problems. Some of my recommendations include:
- Avoid bedtime snacks, particularly grains and sugars, which will raise your and your children's blood sugar and inhibit your sleep.
- Sleep in complete darkness or as close to it as possible. If there is even the tiniest bit of light in the room (including nightlights), it can disrupt your circadian rhythm and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. Additionally, if you have to go to the bathroom at night, keep the bathroom light off. As soon as you turn on that light, you or your children will (for that night) immediately cease all production of the important sleep aid melatonin.
- Keep the temperature in the bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their homes and particularly the upstairs bedrooms too hot.
Addressing a child's weight and sleep issues early on can help establish a more healthy routine that will last a lifetime. While ignoring a child's weight issues or poor sleep patterns is a surefire recipe for a lifetime of chronic health problems.
Have you taken steps to address your child's weight and sleep issues yet?
What's stopping you?
This issue, like so many related to the health of our children in the US, falls squarely on the shoulders of parents. So if you have a child or know of a child facing obesity and poor sleep patterns, I encourage you to use this article as a tool to discuss the problem and address it head on
Remember to lead by example so your child has an excellent model to follow to avoid the obesity trap..