Sleep Loss and Weight Gain: Is There a Connection?

It’s 11 pm New York time, and Emily is sitting in front of her brightly lit computer screen while finishing up some work and enjoying a dish of ice cream. As she heads to bed at 11:45, she turns on the television to begin winding down. Propped up in bed with a book in hand, the light blaring, and the television glaring, she falls asleep. At 6 am she awakens to the loud buzz of the alarm clock. She hops out of bed, groggy, plugs in the coffeemaker, and gets on the treadmill for a half hour of exercise before the hectic morning begins.


It’s 8 pm California time, and Emily’s sister, Deb, is just putting the kids to bed. At 8:30 she turns on the television and hops on the stationary bicycle. Her husband, John, is working late and it’s the only time she could fit in exercise today. John arrives home around 9:30, and Deb prepares a sandwich for him. Hungry from exercising, she eats half a sandwich herself. At 10:30, munching on stale jelly beans, she turns on her computer to check the kids’ activity schedule for the next day. At 11:15 she turns on her bright bedside light and proceeds to read before falling asleep. At 3:00 am John gets out of bed and turns off the lights and television. At 5:45 Deb is awakened by her youngest daughter, who is running a fever.

Both Emily and Deb would like to lose weight. Both struggle with daytime fatigue, low energy, and overeating. Both are chronically sleep deprived and are routinely overriding their bodies’ natural cues for rest and sleep. They are exposing themselves to bright lights, noise, activity, and food at times of the day when their bodies require dim light, quiet, rest, and sleep.

Mounting evidence suggests that lack of sleep has multiple effects that can all result in weight gain. When our internal clock is disrupted, it may throw off many bodily functions including metabolism, hormonal balance, brain chemistry, cognitive function and immunity. Chronic sleep loss disrupts the body’s endocrine system by triggering increased insulin resistance and a disruption of appetite regulating hormones. Lack of sleep leads to a rise in ghrelin, the hormone that turns on hunger and a restriction in leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full. Chronic sleep deprivation may lead to irritability, anxiety and depression—all contributors to emotional eating. And since we are awake longer hours and are often sedentary in that extra waking time we consume more calories than we burn. Voila, weight gain.

Sleep is often the first thing we give up when we are short on time. With increasing stress, intense deadlines and 24/7 connectivity via cell phones and the internet, it seems there just aren’t enough hours in the day. And yet, adequate sleep is one of the most important aspects of weight maintenance and good health.

According to a 2006 study of over 68,000 women from the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, women who slept less than five hours a night were 32 percent more likely to gain 33 pounds or more over the 16-year study period than women who slept at least seven hours a night. The bottom line: the more you sleep, the better your body can regulate the chemicals that control hunger, fullness and fat storage.

So, just how much sleep do we need? While there are no hard and fast rules and individual needs may vary, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. The amount of sleep you need may be more or less—it’s the amount you need to feel rested, refreshed and alert.

If you’re having difficulty getting quality sleep, consider adjusting your habits. Try exercising earlier in the day and refrain from partaking in stimulating activity in bright light in the evening. Prepare for bed by calming down and dimming the lights one to two hours before bed. Maintain a quiet, dark and comfortable environment for restful sleep.

Be aware of the sleep robbers. Reduce your consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, chocolate and nicotine early in the day. Notice if certain foods, vitamins, medications and alcohol keep you from getting a restful night’s sleep and adjust if need be.

Try journaling early in the evening to reduce overwhelm and anxiety. Put to paper feelings and thoughts that are troubling. Remind yourself you can think of them tomorrow and that you have control over you mind.

Try natural sleep aids such as Valerian root and herbal teas and consult your health-care practitioner if you are experiencing chronic insomnia, which can be the result of a medical or psychological illness.

Just like eating, sleep is a natural, life-sustaining process. Try to make sleep a priority and schedule it just like you would any other activity. Otherwise, the sleep you lose may lead to the pounds you gain.

Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting.  You can visit her website at www.overeatingrecovery.com

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