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by Chelsea Jenter, MPH


New parents are expected to follow an overwhelming number of guidelines, rules, and suggestions to keep their children healthy and safe. When my kids were born a few years ago, I recall trying to research various suggestions: Should we eat only organic food? What about whole grains? Phthalates? BPA? Cleaning agents? Which kind of sunscreen is OK? What about bug spray?

All parents want to do what is best for their kids, but navigating the current landscape can be terrifying. So here is a suggestion with a terrific bang for the buck: make sure your kids get enough sleep. Adequate sleep affects many outcomes in positive ways.
At least with my kids, sleep improves their attitudes and increases the potential of seeing their sunny dispositions. This, in turn, increases my own potential for a sunny disposition. (I don’t have the research to support that, but if you’re currently a parent of young children, you know it is true.) On a more scientific note, studies have found that inadequate sleep can harm cognitive function, memory, and attention.

Most surprising to me as a new mom was that less sleep is highly associated with higher rates of obesity. How are lack of sleep and obesity related? In studies of adults, one potential mechanism suggests that a lack of sleep changes hormones, which can then affect eating habits.

However, the causal pathways for the association between sleep and obesity are not yet clear. Does lack of sleep cause obesity, or does obesity cause lack of sleep? For example, does lack of sleep make a person too tired to exercise or cook healthier meals? Or do obese people have other related conditions, such as acid reflux, that prevent them from sleeping well?

Ongoing studies from the Obesity Prevention Program are following children and their sleep habits through the use of actigraphy, which objectively measures both sleep and physical activity. To control for other related factors, these measures will be combined with height and weight changes throughout childhood, self-reported dietary questions, and examination of various hormone levels, including leptin, the satiety hormone.

Sooner or later we will know more about the causal and mechanistic underpinnings of obesity-sleep connection. In the meantime, it couldn’t hurt to get more Zzz's!

 


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