There may not be an obvious link between sleep deprivation and your weight, but more and more research is showing just how important sleep is for your mood, mental performance, overall health and wellness, and especially when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight.
Of course, I’ve already discussed the relationship between sleep, mental health and the gut here, but there’s lots to say about the topic of sleep and mental health. And, many clients are work with are also interested in maintaining a health weight, so this post focuses on sleep and weight gain, with some mental health information here and there.
As you read about sleep and weight, consider that adults with mental health issues are more likely to have sleep problems than those without mental health issues. There seems to be an increase likelihood of having sleep issues among people who have anxiety or depression. And, people who already have sleep issues are more likely to develop anxiety or depression over time. In children, there is also a link between sleep and mental health issues. Children with sleeping disorders may show symptoms similar to those of ADHD, and between 25 and 50% of children with ADHD had difficulty with sleep.
Many studies show that people who get less sleep simply weigh more. And, in fact, as the levels of chronic (long-term) sleep deprivation have increased over the past 50 years, so have the growing epidemics of being overweight or obese.
And many studies now agree that lack of sleep is an “independent” risk factor (i.e. a direct risk) for weight gain and obesity, especially for women.
One large analysis of 45 studies which included over 600,000 people says, “studies from around the world show a consistent increased risk of obesity amongst short sleepers in children and adults.” The increased risks were 89% for children and 55% for adults. The overall data in that study suggests that a reduction in one hour of sleep per day would be associated with about 1.4 kg in additional weight.
Right now, 40% of American adults say that they get less than 7 hours of sleep per night. In Canada, about a third of adults and seniors get less than 7 hours of sleep each night (source). The CDC recommendation that adults get at least 7 hours of sleep per night (source).
HOW SLEEP DEPRIVATION LEADS TO WEIGHT GAIN
Overall, there are two main ways (with two factors each) that we think that lack of sleep contributes to weight gain and obesity.
First, sleep deprivation increases calorie intake in two ways.
- It allows more time available to eat; and
- It messes with your hunger hormones.
Second, it decreases your ability to burn off calories in two ways.
- It can slow your metabolism; and
- It can cause fatigue and, therefore, reduced physical activity.
Let’s talk about all four of these factors.
SLEEPING LESS MEANS MORE TIME AWAKE FOR EATING
Some researchers suggest that the longer the time you’re awake, the more opportunity you have to eat, or more specifically, to snack. In fact, some studies have shown that people who sleep less tend to be night-time snackers.
And guess what many sleep-deprived people tend to snack on at night?
You guessed it…high-fat, sometimes high-carb, and less protein and fibre snacks, which, of course, can lead to weight gain.
And these snack choices can contribute to inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, and gut micro-biome imbalances. Plus they may not provide the nutrients necessary for creating neurotransmitters (primarily protein and healthy fats), which are important for regulating both mood and sleep.
And, at least one study shows that eating at night increases the time it takes healthy people to fall asleep, especially for women. So there is a bit of a “vicious cycle” in play here where not sleeping leads to snacking and snacking leads to not sleeping.
LACK OF SLEEP MESSES WITH YOUR HUNGER HORMONES
Many people who sleep less tend to eat more calories throughout the day. And not only due to increased time available for snacking, but also because of how lack of sleep can mess with the hormones that control both hunger and appetite.
How does this happen?
This is a “double-whammy” because some studies show that lack of sleep not only increases the stomach’s hunger hormone “ghrelin” (making you hungrier), but it also decreases the fat tissue’s fullness hormone “leptin” (making you feel less full). These hormonal changes can clearly lead to more eating, and eventually weight gain or even obesity.
It’s possible that this is a natural mechanism that our body uses to make sure we get enough food for longer waking times. But this doesn’t always serve us well, as it tends to make us “overshoot” our energy needs and take in a bit more than we actually need.
LACK OF SLEEP MAY SLOW YOUR METABOLISM
Research is just emerging on this topic, but it seems to show that sleep deprivation can lower your “energy expenditure” and body temperature?
This means that your body may naturally burn less fuel at rest during the days when you’re sleep deprived. When you use less energy, your body stores more.
LACK OF SLEEP REDUCES EXERCISE
You know how tired you feel after not getting enough sleep? This is the fourth way that lack of sleep affects weight. By increasing fatigue, sleep deprivation can reduce the motivation to exercise.
And when you’re burning less fuel at rest (slower metabolism), and less likely to exercise, you’re at risk of gaining weight. Since exercise is important in maintaining good mental health, feel tired and unmotivated can also affect your mental health.
WANT TO KNOW THE GREAT NEWS?
Lack of sleep is considered a “modifiable risk factor”. This means that, although it increases our risk for obesity, we have some power over it.
How well you sleep and how much sleep you get is something that you can improve by putting into place some tips and making them regular habits.
TIPS FOR GETTING BETTER SLEEP
1 – Make sleep a priority.
Let’s admit that, for a lot of us, the lack of sleep we’re getting is often because we simply give other activities priority. Making something a priority will help you achieve it.
2 – Be consistent with your sleeping times.
Your body loves routine, and having a consistent bedtime can actually train your brain, your body’s clock (circadian rhythm), and sleep hormones to follow suit.
3 – Eliminate stimulants after noon.
Ideally, you won’t expose your body to chemical stimulation for the whole afternoon and evening. This includes caffeine (coffee, black and green teas, chocolate) and nicotine (cigarettes).
4 – Get some exercise and sunshine during the day.
Of course exercise and sunshine have many health benefits. They also tell your brain that it’s daytime, so it can help to set your body’s clock.
Tip: Be sure to finish exercise at least three hours before bedtime because exercising late in the day may stimulate some people and keep them awake.
5 – Stop eating and drinking a couple of hours before bed
By cutting out your bedtime snack you will eat fewer calories, and you may even have a better night’s sleep and wake up more alert. Also, by not drinking fluids a few hours before bed you’ll reduce the need to go the bathroom in the middle of the night.
6 – Lower your lights when the sun goes down
If your brain thinks it’s daytime it will not make the sleep hormone melatonin so it can stay awake. So, having bright white (or blue-ish) lights can trick your brain into thinking that it’s daytime.
So, you can dim your lights, buy amber/red light bulbs and/or blue-blocker glasses, turn off electronics (or at least use the f.lux or twilight apps), and if you do need to go to the bathroom during the night, don’t turn on the light.
7 – Create a relaxing pre-bed routine.
Choose something that you enjoy and will help to relax your body and mind and prepare it for a good night’s sleep, whether it be a warm bath, or reading a book.
And when you start feeling drowsy, just go to bed.
8 – Keep your bedroom comfortable
Having a room that is too hot, bright, or noisy can keep you from having a good night’s sleep. Ideally your room will be cool, completely dark, and either silent or with white noise.
9 – Get light as soon as you wake up
Get more strategies to improve your sleep
in my interview with Sleep Coach Lana Walsh
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