HEALTHY LIVING
12/29/2013 10:02 am ET | Updated Dec 22, 2014

The Most Important Thing You Can Do In The New Year To Lose Weight, Get Sharper And Live Longer

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Everyone wants to start the new year off on the right foot. But, as many of us know all too well, the best New Year's intentions to get fit, lose weight, eat more nutritiously, stress less and save more money can easily fall to the wayside. (And often do, considering only about 8 percent of people successfully achieve their resolutions, according to University of Scranton Research, Forbes reported.)

However, it could be that the reason all your other resolutions are failing -- and the reason you're having trouble making sound food choices or keeping weight off to begin with -- is you're ignoring a simple yet powerful component of total health: sleep.

"Improving sleep during the nighttime can really be very effective in improving quality of life in the daytime," says Dr. Alon Avidan, M.D., MPH, a professor of neurology and the director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center.

It shouldn't take a fatal accident to remind us of the importance of sleep, although the derailment of the Metro North train in New York City last month did serve as a reminder of the dangers of drowsy driving.

"There is a false sense of belief among patients that they can get by on four or five hours of sleep," Avidan tells HuffPost. "We know that sleep deprivation is dangerous."

And not only while operating a train or a plane or a car. Daily life is increasingly hazardous with insufficient shut-eye, just in different, but still significant, ways.

Sleep, Hunger & Weight Gain
Too little sleep has a well-documented relationship with weight gain and obesity, but the pathway by which a lack of shut-eye impacts the waistline is not yet totally understood. However, a number of studies shed light on various aspects of this complicated relationship.

It may be that people who skimp on sleep simply have more opportunity to eat. Short sleepers who stay up late seem to be more likely to consume late-night snacks and more calories in general. Fatigue also seems to cloud the mind in a way that makes it more difficult to select nutritious food options and easier to fill grocery carts with high-calorie, impulse buys. And on top of it all, not getting enough sleep seems to trigger hunger, likely due to an imbalance of the hormones that control those pangs. In a small 2012 study, researchers found that short sleep increased levels of ghrelin, which triggers hunger, in men, and lowered levels of an appetite-suppressing hormone called GLP-1 in women, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Sleep & Memory
During the rapid eye movement or REM stage of sleep the brain continues to be active, as if it were awake. That's why this phase is so commonly the one associated with the learning and memory functions of sleep. Part of the restorative nature of sleep may transport memories from short-term to long-term storage, according to a 2013 study. The brain degeneration associated with skimping on sleep makes some of this impossible.

Sleep & Longevity
Skimping on sleep increases your risk not only for potentially life-threatening health crises like stroke, heart attack and cancer, it also ups your chances of dying younger from any cause. People who regularly got less than six hours of sleep a night were 12 percent more likely to die over a 25-year period than people who slept between six and eight hours a night, according to a study published in the journal SLEEP, the BBC reported.

So What Can You Do?
It's as good a time as ever to commit to more -- or simply better -- sleep. There are even things you can do tonight, says Avidan, like reserving the bedroom for sleep and sex only or avoiding caffeine later in the day. "Television is my number one enemy as a sleep physician," he says, especially if that boob tube is in the bedroom, since it emits disruptive artificial light.

Try making a sleep resolution this year, like pledging to leave your phone outside the bedroom or to finally talk to your doc about your snoring. Or maybe this is the year you stop saying things like, "I'll sleep when I'm dead!" and start prioritizing your shut-eye just like you do your gym time.

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