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Chuck, I hear that not getting enough sleep can make one gain weight. Ever heard of that? And what natural means do you recommend to slumber better and more? – Tom V., Arkansas

Men’s Health recently reported that a new study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that if you don’t get enough sleep, you could be eating an extra 300 calories per day. Combined with new studies also revealing that one-third of Americans aren’t getting enough (eight hours) sleep, that’s challenging news.

The sleep-weight study was conducted by Temple University researchers who monitored people ages 30 to 49 who normally slept for seven to nine hours nightly. When they deliberately restricted the sleep of half the participants to only four hours each night, the researchers found that those participants’ appetites increased considerably. At the same time, both groups burned just about the same number of calories despite their amount of sleep.

Two primary factors likely caused the intensified hunger. First, researchers already know that sleep deprivation triggers the production of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and decreases the appetite-satiating hormone leptin. What that means is that insufficient sleep can slow down one’s metabolism, to the tune of 10 pounds of weight gain in a year.

Secondly, Gary D. Foster, Ph.D., director of Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education, explained that inadequate sleep reduces your self-control, and less willpower can, in turn, easily result in binge eating.

Foster said: “A TV commercial, chips in your kitchen and people around you can all trigger eating. It really comes down to how on top of your game you are.”

Of course, weight gain is only one potential problem among those who don’t get enough sleep. Clinical studies also show that those who are sleep-deprived are three times likelier to get a common sickness such as a cold or the flu. Additionally, they run increased risks of memory loss, bad reaction time, depression, mood disorders, substance abuse, diabetes and heart disease, to name a few.

As reported in The New York Times, risks of cancers may even increase for those who have chronic sleep problems. A Japanese study of nearly 24,000 women ages 40 to 79 and a study of 1,240 people by researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that those who slept less than six hours nightly were likelier to develop breast cancer or potentially cancerous colorectal polyps.

No wonder Dr. Michael J. Twery, a sleep specialist at the National Institutes of Health, told The New York Times, “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies.”

In his book “The Seven Pillars of Health,” Dr. Don Colbert says that getting adequate amounts of sleep is necessary if you expect to function properly and remain healthy. A good night’s sleep restores, repairs and rejuvenates the body. It is vital for the immune system and slows the aging process.

If you’re one of the 100 million Americans who need more shut-eye, there is hope. Experts say there are some natural alternatives and strategies to prescription sleep aids, such as exercising more regularly (which releases natural endorphins), eating more sleepy-time foods toward the end of the day, getting counseling for worrisome issues, learning to manage stress better, napping in early (not late) afternoons – if you nap at all – creating a sleep-conducive bedroom (including no electronics), progressively turning down and off inside house lights and electronics each evening, creating nighttime rituals that help you rest (such as praying or meditating before you go to bed) and taking herbal supplements containing melatonin. (Additional tips for increased slumber among each age group can be found at http://www.menshealth.com/spotlight/sleep/snooze.php.)

A high-starch, high-tryptophan and serotonin-producing snack an hour before bedtime might also be a remedy for your sleeplessness, according to a 2007 Australian study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Carbohydrates (particularly complex ones) make the brain produce more serotonin – one of the most important brain chemicals for regulating good sleep patterns. Foods with ample amounts of complex carbohydrates include potatoes, corn, rice, legumes, bread, pasta and cereal.

Another way to boost serotonin levels is to eat foods high in the amino acid tryptophan, which include pumpkin seeds, eggs, turkey, chicken, milk and salmon. Tryptophan also can be found in smaller amounts in peas and other legumes.

Eating those foods will also help you sleep your way to skinniness, as they are far better options than the high-saturated-fat and high-calorie sugary desserts that rev up your mind and body.

Lastly, as one article from The Hartford Courant exclaimed, “Let a prayer be your pillow.” In it, researchers reported about how giving concerns to God can be a nighttime ritual that helps us relax.

Dr. Daniel McNally, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center, noted: “It’s part of the actions that signify to me that I’m going to bed. Prayer or meditation or relaxation techniques, they are relaxing, and (sleepers) learn to associate that set of behaviors with going to sleep.”

The Rev. James Wiseman, a Benedictine priest and associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, explained that in ancient monastic times, three psalms from the Bible (4, 91 and 134) were “chosen for their references to peaceful trust in God during the night.”

That gives a whole new meaning and purpose to these words in Psalm 4: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.”

Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.

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