Around this time every winter, Canadians desperate for sun flock to warm destinations where drinks are served with umbrella swizzle sticks, and flip-flops and swimsuits are the prevailing fashion. Getting away from the snow and daily slog sounds like the perfect pick-me-up. But there can be a downside to trips across time zones, as Dr. Elaine Chin has discovered among some of her patients. Sleep patterns are disrupted. Food choices are poor—who can resist the all-you-can-eat buffet? And physical activity amounts to shuffling from the pool to the pagoda. Then there are those who stay home so they can buckle down at work to get the year off to a productive start, says Chin, chief medical officer of Scienta Health in Toronto. They clock long hours, book back-to-back business trips, and sacrifice going to the gym and eating balanced meals.
No matter what category you fall into, the medical warning is the same. To be at our best, we must faithfully observe the holy trinity of health: sleep just enough, eat well, including breakfast, and exercise as much as you can. And yet, most of us don’t.
Unfortunately, we’re not getting away with it. Since last May, nearly 25,000 people have taken the Q-GAP test at macleans.ca/howhealthy. It’s an online questionnaire developed by Scienta, a private clinic specializing in personalized medicine, that allows individuals to determine which of more than 150 symptoms they exhibit that may indicate underlying or future medical problems. Those findings will form the basis of the seventh annual “How Healthy Are You?” series, which will be published in the spring. But early data reveals a stark portrait about the well-being of many Canadians: those of us who skip breakfast, avoid physical activity and sleep poorly (either too much or too little) have the worst Q-GAP scores, and by extension, the most symptoms—and the worst overall health status.
Specifically, the data shows that the optimal number of hours slept among participants was seven or eight each night. Oversleeping is as risky as undersleeping; those individuals who slept more than 10 hours a night had worse overall health scores than those who slept just five hours each night. Similar findings were published last spring in the journal Sleep. Italian and British researchers reviewed 16 international studies that included more than 1.3 million participants over 25 years. They discovered that people who didn’t adhere to the recommended six to eight hours of sleep per night suffered for it. Those who got fewer hours of sleep were 12 per cent more likely to die prematurely. Those who slept more tended to have underlying serious or deadly medical problems.
One way to offset the dangers of improper sleep might be by eating breakfast. The latest Q-GAP data showed that scores improved progressively and substantially when participants reported having breakfast “always” rather than “sometimes” or “never.” Emily Burt, a registered dietitian in Edmonton, encourages her clients to get their metabolism “kick-started” in the morning so they don’t feel sluggish or overeat later. The best breakfast includes a variety of food types, says Burt: carbs “to get your blood sugar going and give your brain and muscles some glucose to draw on” for energy, as well as protein and a bit of fat and fibre to “extend the life of that digestion,” she explains. “There is evidence that by having a balance you feel fuller longer.”
In fact, eating breakfast appears to actually help us resist unhealthy temptations later in the day. British research presented at an endocrine conference last summer found that people who skipped breakfast experienced a jump in the “hunger hormone” ghrelin, which made them crave high-calorie foods later. Eighteen healthy participants were shown images of different foods three mornings in a row—once after skipping breakfast, once after having breakfast and getting an injection of ghrelin, and once after having breakfast and receiving a shot of salt water. The results: high-calorie foods, especially sweets, were more appealing when participants skipped breakfast or had eaten breakfast and received ghrelin. On the day they ate breakfast, participants found the low-calorie foods just as appealing as the high-calorie ones.
As for the third part of the health equation—physical activity—the Q-GAP data showed there’s no such thing as too much. Scores were double (that is, twice as bad) when participants exercised once a week compared to six times a week or more. This comes just as Statistics Canada released new data showing that only 15 per cent of adults and seven per cent of children meet the daily recommended amount of physical activity. This is particularly worrying, since a lack of exercise causes a drop in levels of growth hormone, which helps the body repair and restore bone and muscle. It naturally decreases as we age, Chin explains, but it drops even more quickly if we aren’t moving our bodies enough: a 40-year-old sedentary person, for example, can have the growth hormone levels of a 60-year-old.
Of course, knowing that we should eat and sleep right and exercise often doesn’t always translate into action. Chin says there are a few reasons for this: we underestimate the short- and long-term impact. We believe we are unfailingly resilient. And we don’t make bedtime, breakfast or push-ups high priorities in our daily life. That’s because unlike the tan we get on vacation, or the extra money we make by putting in overtime, the effects of eating, sleeping and exercising aren’t so quickly apparent. “Good health habits do not necessarily provide instant and obvious benefits,” says Chin. “But bad health habits do not necessarily cause poor health outcomes immediately either.” And by the time the negative effects are evident, it might be too late.
The good news? A change for the better is just one sleep away.