The connection between sleep and gaining weight
Updated: May 3, 2021
It’s common knowledge that both getting a good night’s sleep and following a healthy diet is essential for overall health. Many people also believe that weight gain, and loss are all about calories and willpower. All true, but, what you might not know is that there is an overlooked direct connection between sleep and gaining weight or obesity.
Say what!? Yes, studies have shown there is undoubtedly a link between sleep and overeating. Sleep deprivation can affect your appetite and food choices, increasing the likelihood of both overeating and consuming unhealthy foods. Now here is the kicker, add emotionally sensitive, stressed, even PMS to that lovely equation and you basically have what I call “a get out of jail free card for all kinds of emotional overeating”. How does all of this make sense, and how can it help or not help you, let’s begin with Hormones for Dummies, Volume 1. Our body, more specifically our fat cells produces a hormone called Leptin, which is an integral part of hunger and appetite. Also called the “starvation hormone” Leptin’s primary target is in the brain, particularly an area called the hypothalamus – the part that controls when and how much you eat. Leptin is supposed to tell your brain that, when you have enough fat stored, you don’t need to eat more food and can burn calories at a normal rate. High levels of leptin tell your brain that you have plenty of fat stored, while low levels tell your brain that fat stores are low and that you need to eat. When you eat, your body fat goes up, leading your leptin levels to go up. Thus, you eat less and burn more. Conversely, when you don’t eat, your body fat goes down, leading your leptin levels to drop. At that point, you eat more and burn less. Everyone still with me?
How does all this up and down Leptin business connect to sleep, well, J. M. Mullington published a study in the Journal of Neuroendocrinology in 2003, on sleep–wake homeostasis and how this influences the release of leptin in the body. For all you science junkies, you can read more about the study here. For the “give it to me straight” people, a shorter and more user-friendly version, results from the clinical trial found that sleep deprivation directly impacted the amount of Leptin produced. Little sleep and disrupted sleep triggered, low production of Leptin in the blood. The subjects who slept between 8 to 9 hours, tested much higher Leptin levels in their blood after a sleep cycle. So, low levels of Leptin lead to increased hunger and appetite, making overeating more likely. While getting a good night’s rest leads to increased production of the hormone Leptin making you eat less. And mostly less grumpy. Recognising the bidirectional relationship between sleep and overeating can be a first step toward optimising your diet and losing that excess fat. Basically, sleep more, eat less.
Here is how you can get more zzzzz at night.
Once you’ve become aware of your bedtime habits, it’s time to start making some changes.
Here are 4 healthy bedtime habits for better sleep:
1. Set a sleep schedule
First thing’s first, you need to set yourself a sleep schedule and stick to it.
Your body has an internal clock that follows a natural rhythm of sleep and wakefulness. This circadian rhythm tells your body when to be awake, active, and when to rest. Without a consistent bedtime, your body struggles to establish a regular sleep-wake cycle. This affects the amount of deep sleep you get, resulting in poor sleep quality. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps your body regulate its internal clock.
2. Develop a bedtime routine
Along with a set sleep schedule, healthy nightly habits include a structured bedtime routine to prepare your body for slumber. A calming, pre-sleep ritual, helps your internal clock identify when to go to sleep. As babies, we were nursed with a sleep ritual every night, which mostly included a relaxing bath, bonding time, and then a calm somewhat dark room with a Disney night light. Even as children, parents stick to a strict time for bedtime, yet as you get older, the bedtime rules of your childhood tend to fall to the wayside. When you’re old enough to decide for yourself, the intoxicating lure of turning in at any hour you please is hard to resist, and Netflix does not make it easier to resist staying up late. But resist it you must if you want to develop healthy habits and sleep better.
3. Turn off electronic devices
Does your wind-down ritual include scrolling through your social media or watching funny cat videos on YouTube? You’re not alone. But, if you’re serious about improving your quality of sleep, it’s time to put down the smartphone (or tablet, or laptop). While you might feel like you’re relaxing, glueing your eyes to a screen doesn’t help you drift off. Instead, it has the opposite effect, keeping you awake and disrupting your sleep-wake cycle.
How does one little screen have such a significant impact on your sleep? Simple. Tablet, laptop, and smartphone screens all emit a blue light that disrupts your body’s production of melatonin – the hormone responsible for helping you sleep. Be sure to turn off your screens at least an hour before bedtime, and rather read a few pages from a fiction novel. Yes, books still exist.
4. Steer clear of stimulants
Aaaah Caffeine my old friend. Stimulants such as caffeine can disrupt your sleep, even if you can drink that cup of Joe before bed and still drift off. Try to limit your coffee intake to earlier in the day and switch your bedtime cuppa to chamomile or peppermint tea.
Pick one or two from these healthy habits and give it a try tonight when you go to bed.
While you may not include all 4 habits in your evening ritual, doing just one or two will help you build a helpful evening routine, and sleep better.