Combining the words “healthy” and “Italian” in the same phrase may seem like an oxymoron, but I am going to attempt to change that misconception. I am a prime example of a healthy Italian, better yet, a healthy older Italian. Yes, it is possible to be an Italian and be healthy!
This month’s topic: Sleep!
One might think that the children of Italians who often choose their own bedtimes and traditionally eat much later than we do, whether at home or dining out late with their parents at a restaurant, would have poor sleeping habits. Yet, a 2005 study revealed that Italian adolescents have better sleep hygiene than American teens.
Italians do a lot of things differently, like shorter school days and the riposo, a leisurely lunch and rest time at home with the family – typically between 1 and 3 p.m., a time when our bodies naturally get tired. Naps can improve memory, focus and creativity. Italians usually take a long, relaxed passeggiata in the evening before or after dinner. A leisurely walk can lessen stress and relax the body. These might explain why Italians had the highest sleep quality scores in a sleep study by Early Sense, a sleep tracking device maker, when compared with the French, Germans and Brits.
There was a time when I thought I needed about 5 hours of sleep each night. I would find, however, that after a few days, I was eating more and craving not-so-healthy foods just to give myself a boost of energy. I tried to get rid of the brain fog that accompanied lack of adequate sleep with coffee drinks laden with calories that were bad not only for my brain but also my weight. Does this sound familiar?
Sleep is a naturally occurring state whose cycles are governed by light and darkness. Our bodies are encoded to respond to this circadian rhythm, that is, our sleep/awake cycle. When it’s dark, our eyes send a signal to the pineal gland then the brain signals a release of melatonin and the body gets tired. Daylight signals the brain and body to awaken. When we are attuned to this rhythm, we feel calmer, more centered and more energetic when awake.
Even though, as adults, we may feel tired, most of us need less sleep as we get older, between 7-9 hours, whereas a newborn needs 14-17 hours of sleep in order to develop and function properly. Sleep is composed of 90-minute cycles, with the brain moving from non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. We need to average five of these cycles throughout the night, which gives us about 7.5 hours of sleep. During the early part of the night non-REM, or deep, more restorative sleep dominates, but closer to daybreak, REM, or lighter, dream-filled sleep takes over. Many doctors recommend going to bed closer to 10 p.m. to get more deep, restorative sleep.
Bright light at night, especially the blue light from TV and computer screens, will signal the pineal gland that it is still daytime and shut down melatonin production, which will prevent the onset of sleep. During the day, this same blue light, a part of the natural light spectrum with shorter wavelengths and more energy, helps regulate the circadian rhythm and boost alertness, but too much blue light in the evening can disrupt this natural sleep/awake cycle. Blue light filters are available for digital devices as well as blue light glasses to protect your eyes from strain and possible eye problems over time. Dim the lights after sunset, power down those devices about an hour before bedtime, keep them out of your darkened bedroom at night, and awaken to the sunshine.
Sleep is a time when the body repairs and restores itself, so more sleep is better, right? NO! Consistently oversleeping (9 hours or more) can also be detrimental to your health. Long sleep may be natural for some (2% of the population are naturally long sleepers), but it can also coincide with other health issues needing treatment. Research links longer sleep habits with cognitive impairment, inflammation and higher risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression and back pain, to name a few.
Conversely, sleep deprivation can affect the body’s immune system and therefore may impair its ability to heal wounds and fight disease. It can cause shortened attention span, higher anxiety, impaired memory, and can make one grouchy. Don’t be a grouch! Well-rested individuals have improved memory and mood and are physically healthier.
Tip of the month: Find your perfect sleep/awake balance.
Sleep can be so much more rewarding when we afford ourselves plenty of time to restore and heal. Explore what time you should be going to sleep and how many hours you need in order to wake up feeling refreshed. It could be just a matter of a little more discipline. Go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day. Remember, napping too long during the day can make you feel groggy and more tired, but if you want to take a tip from the Italians and take un piccolo riposo in the afternoon and a passeggiata later in the day, you might notice a difference. After two weeks, using the tips above with the rhythms of Mother Nature, notice how much more rejuvenated you will feel!
Diana Lucarino-Diekmann, has been working in the field of Health and Fitness since 1980, helping others achieve optimal health and happiness. She has a BA in Exercise Physiology, as well as Pilates and Yoga certifications and an extensive knowledge of nutrition and disease. Having taught almost every type of exercise class, she now specializes in Yoga, Pilates, meditation, and mindfulness, not only in exercise but also in life.
The contents of “The Healthy Italian” are for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medial condition or your personal health.