It’s no secret that many of us long to lose weight. According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost half of Americans have experienced obesity. If you’re among that group, you know how hard it is to find the right combination of exercise, eating right, and more that will put you on a path to a healthier weight.
Of course, the pandemic hasn’t made it any easier, as gyms have closed and we’ve relocated our work life to the dining room table. Two years of burnout have led many of us, understandably, to engage in habits like stress-eating that lead to weight gain. All of this led to what pundits are calling the “COVID-15” — pandemic-related weight gain that, research shows, happened to many of us. But as you’ll see if you read on, getting a good night’s sleep can put you on the right track if weight loss is your resolution #1 for 2022.
So can our sleep help us lose weight? It would be nice if a solid night’s shut-eye shaved off half a pound, but unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There are, however, some interesting connections between sleep and weight that are worth exploring. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the question of how your sleep patterns may, in fact, play an important role in your efforts to reach a healthier weight.
So Can Sleeping More Help You Lose Weight?
The simple answer to this question is: it’s not simple. The relationship between sleep and weight loss is, in fact, wrapped up in both our mental and physical health processes. It’s true that you do burn off a small number of calories as you sleep, due to something called your basal metabolic rate — which is the number of calories it takes for basic human processes like breathing and blood circulation. But that doesn’t burn enough fat to allow you to lose weight.
It’s also not accurate to say that getting a good night’s sleep boosts your metabolism higher, helping you to lose more calories. That’s a common myth, but it’s not true.
But what IS true, paradoxically, is that getting inadequate amounts of sleep can lead to an increased risk for obesity in many age groups. A 2020 meta-analysis published in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice clearly indicated that short sleep duration was “significantly associated with the risk of future obesity.”
So what’s the deal here? Well, one big answer has to do with the fact that sleeping helps us to regulate our hormones, which control everything from how tall we’ll grow to our moods. And some of those hormones, not surprisingly, also tell us when we’re hungry or full.
How Does Sleep Impact Our Hormones?
Hormones are produced by the endocrine system, and without them, we couldn’t manage the processes of life. They control our metabolism, emotions and moods, even our blood pressure. Here are a few of the more important ones related to our sleep cycle, that also play a role in our weight.
Think of leptin as a tiny messenger sent from the fat cells to the brain to tell it when you’ve had enough to eat. Leptin, and another we’ll talk about below called ghrelin, are perhaps most closely associated with eating and sleep. “When we are sleep-deprived, our body produces less leptin, which is the hunger hormone we need for our brain to tell our bodies that we are full,” says Dr. Whitney Roban, a sleep specialist and founder of Solve Our Sleep. “Therefore, we will eat more and gain weight with less leptin secreted.”
Insulin is made in your pancreas, and it controls the amount of glucose — a simple sugar and source of energy — in your bloodstream and helps to store it. Insufficient insulin leads to diabetes for millions of Americans, which is closely linked to obesity. Studies have shown that chronic sleep loss may cause insulin resistance, leading to weight gain and the greater likelihood that the sleeper will experience diabetes or pre-diabetic conditions.
Made in the adrenal glands, cortisol is called the “stress hormone” for good reason: it’s released, along with adrenaline, when you encounter a threat. Unfortunately, the body considers lack of sleep to be a threat. “Cortisol, our stress hormone, sends signals to our brain about hunger and cravings,” explains Angela Logo, a registered dietitian. “When our bodies are sleep deprived (and therefore stressed) our brain tells our fat cells, especially in the belly region, to store as many calories as possible.”
As we mentioned earlier, ghrelin and leptin go hand-in-hand. While leptin tells us when to stop eating because we’ve had enough, ghrelin stimulates our appetite, making us want to eat more. “Ghrelin is the hunger hormone we want less of because it tells our bodies that we are hungry and that we should keep eating,” says Roban. “When sleep deprived, our bodies secrete more Ghrelin, and we will overeat and gain weight.”
Serotonin is another hormone with links to both sleeping and weight. Too much serotonin interferes with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Too little leads to wakefulness. Just the right amount is needed to regulate your sleep/wake cycle. But there’s more: too little serotonin has been shown to be related to hyperphagia, which is the increased appetite for food, and subsequent weight gain. In other words, lowered serotonin levels can lead to both disturbed sleep and overeating.
How Can Sleep Support Weight Loss?
Okay, you get it: hormones can impact your sleeping and eating behaviors in a number of ways. But that isn’t the complete picture regarding sleep and weight loss. There are other factors at play that speak to the relationship between a good night’s sleep and good eating habits.
More Balanced Appetite
This one’s a no-brainer: if you go to bed at a consistent time every night, and fall asleep within half an hour of getting into bed, you shouldn’t be waking up at 3:00 a.m. looking for a plate of nachos. Why are those nachos so appealing? “When you are in a state of sleep deprivation, your body will actually crave foods that are bad for you — foods that are high in sugar and simple carbs to get that instant energy boost,” says Christina Friedman, a sleep coach at WomensfitnessHq.Com. “Not only will you crave it, but you’re more likely to give in to the impulses and wreck whatever diet you’re on when you’re unrested.”
Enhanced Physical Activity
A good night’s sleep leaves you well-rested and ready for whatever the day has in store for you. You’re more likely to have the energy to, say, walk to work or hit up the gym afterwards, and those healthy behaviors can help you shed calories. Sleep is also essential for muscle growth and recovery, says Kyle Risley of Liftvault.com. “If you’re lifting weights in the gym and trying to build muscle, you could be wasting your time if you’re not sleeping enough.” Since muscle burns more calories than fat, you want to encourage good sleeping habits to encourage the building of muscle mass over fat mass.
Minimized Depressive Symptoms
Depression and other mental illnesses are inextricably interwoven with sleep disorders. One study, in fact, indicated that obese people are five times more likely to overeat during periods of depression. Disturbed sleep exacerbates depression by altering hormones like cortisol and melatonin which, in addition to their other duties, play a role in regulating mood. And mood, of course, plays a big role in urging us to make poor food choices. Im fact, it’s a classic meme: you have a terrible day at work, your mood is dark, you come home and devour a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream in the hopes that it’ll make you feel better.
Improved Diet Choices
Let’s go back for a minute to our discussion of ghrelin and leptin. If you get a good night’s sleep, you’ve got a minimum amount of ghrelin coursing through your veins, telling you that you really, really need a ham sandwich. Instead, you’ve got a maximum of leptin, which is busy informing your body that it’s had just about enough food for one day, thank you very much. And if you do need a snack, why not try one of those nice juicy apples? Eight hours of shut-eye makes it far more likely you’ll pass on the ham sandwich and head right for the fruit.
Practicing Healthy Sleep Habits
So how do you practice healthy sleep habits? Here are a few suggestions that may help:
- Stick to your bedtime: Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Determine when you want your bedtime (and waking time) to be and then stick to it — even on weekends.
- Have the best equipment: you can’t get a good night’s sleep if you don’t have a comfortable mattress and good-quality pillows, sheets, and blankets. Make sure your bedding sets you up for a good night’s rest.
- Relax before bed: a night-time routine will let your body know that it’s time to slow down and rest, whether that means meditation, reading, or listening to quiet music.
- Avoid blue light devices: your tablet, cell phone, and computer emit blue light that can disrupt your sleep cycle. Turn devices off at least an hour before bed.
- Make your bedroom a sleeping haven: If possible, keep your bedroom free of any activities other than sleeping and sex. Put the TV in the living room and the treadmill in the basement, and keep your bedroom as a haven for sleeping and relaxation.
- Don’t exercise at night: exercise is beneficial in many ways, but it’s best avoided in the hours before bedtime. Exercise will raise your heart rate, so it’s better done in the morning rather than when you’re getting ready to sleep.
How to Start Sleeping Better in One Week
Rome wasn’t conquered in a day, as the old saying goes, but you can improvise your sleep habits in a single week by tackling some or all of the suggestions on our day-by-day chart of sleep improvements. Take them one at a time, and if something doesn’t work for you, no worries: just move on to the next suggestion.
Weight Loss Support Resources
If weight loss is on your to-do list for 2022, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Millions of people share your goals, and there are a number of organizations and other resources that can help you succeed and achieve a new, higher level of health.
|Resource||What it offers|
|Overeaters Anonymous||This global organization features a twelve-step program, an extensive document library, and access to meetings no matter where you live.|
|Take off Pounds Sensibly||Like OA, this non-profit organization offers weight-loss support, online resources, and weekly meetings, both in-person and virtual.|
|Thin for Life: 10 Keys to Success from People Who Have Lost Weight and Kept It Off||There are thousands of books available on weight loss, and a little browsing can find one that works for you. We like this one, which taps into the wisdom of people who have lost weight and kept it off.|
|Obesity Action Coalition||This non-profit group offers a listing of support groups by state that can help you get started in finding others with similar goals.|
|MyFitnesspal.com||This online resource and smartphone app allows you to track calories, monitor your progress, and gain support from an online community. A free membership offers great value, but there is also a paid option if you choose.|
|NIH Weight Management website||The National Institute of Health’s weight management website is a clearinghouse of information on obesity in children and adults. It features a BMI calculator, dietary guidelines and more.|
|myplate.gov||This fun website is a function of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and features information on eating healthy, shopping for food, and a personalized MyPlate plan that can help you eat so that you meet your food group targets.|
|Body Weight Planner||Another NIH initiative, the Body Weight Planner lets you make a personalized calorie and physical activity plan to reach your weight goal.|
As you head into a new year, with new goals and aspirations, you know that weight loss is one that is marked by significant joys and challenges. Losing weight is a cause for celebration, for sure, but there are often speed bumps along the way to negotiate. When that happens, know that you’re not alone: the difficulties you encounter when you try to get back to a healthy weight are well-known to anyone who has tried to do so (and who hasn’t?). One powerful ally, however, is your sleep cycle. If you make it a consistent habit to sleep well and soundly every night, you may find that your weight loss goals are just a little closer than you thought.
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