Updated: Jun 23
Sleep is one of the basic needs all creatures have. Even insects set aside time for rest. Sleep affects pretty much every aspect of our well-being and our health, physically and emotionally. Our weight is no exception. Lack of sleep or a healthy sleep can be a determining factor in regards to how much weight we might lose or gain. It can also make it harder or easier to lose weight when taking into account other factors, like dieting.
In particular, sleeping less often leads to more weight gain and can make losing weight a lot harder for various reasons that we will detail below. Let’s consider the various ways in which sleep can influence our weight.
Sleep, increased appetite, and feeling full
Sleep has various functions. One of these is to regulate and contribute to our circadian mechanisms through the release of hormones and their metabolism. When we are not sleeping enough or have an irregular schedule, our internal clocks fall off rhythm and can also hurt the way in which our hormones are released and when.
Sleep disturbances can lead to influences on various hormones, such as insulin, melatonin, and cortisol. These can have negative effects on the body. However, two hormones that can have a particular impact on our appetite and are also affected by the lack of sleep are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin and leptin are connected to feelings of hunger and satisfaction (Spiegel, Tasali, Penev, & Van Cauter, 2004).
When we don’t sleep, our body produces more ghrelin. Ghrelin leads to increases in hunger and appetite, especially the desire to eat foods with higher caloric content and with a lot of carbohydrates. At the same time, our levels of leptin grow lower, and leptin is linked to feeling full and satiated. This means that we take longer to feel full and might eat more due to a higher appetite, the desire to eat more calories and carbs, and to take longer to feel full (Spiegel, Tasali, Penev, & Van Cauter, 2004).
Sleep and dysregulated metabolism
A lack of sleep can impact the lipid metabolism or the metabolism of fat and the metabolism overall. In particular, in the long-term, it can contribute to obesity, insulin insensitivity, hormonal imbalance, and a dysregulated appetite (Kim, Weong, & Hong, 2015). This means that when we don’t sleep, our body metabolizes calories abnormally, and this can lead to us storing more fat or processing sugars in a way that transforms them more into fat, leading to weight gain.
Sleep deprivation hits our metabolism hard, and everything in the body is interconnected. Over a long period of time, the lack of sleep can lead to more significant health issues that are tied to weight and metabolism, such as diabetes.
Sleep and dieting
As we have established, not sleeping, in general, contributes to weight gain and changes in appetite and hunger, as well as more serious changes in our metabolism. However, what happens if we are following a diet? What happens when we are keeping our appetites in check?
It seems that even if we are following a diet or taking measures to lose weight, not sleeping well undermines these efforts a lot. When a group of women were trying to diet, limiting their sleep time to 5.5 hours of sleep led to them losing a lot less weight than the women who slept normally(about 8.5 hours). The first group lost around 55% less fat than those who slept normally. The women who slept less also experienced more hunger (Nedeltcheva, et al., 2010).
The study’s authors concluded that more sleep helps keep the body at a lower weight and with fewer levels of fat. Another study found reduced sleep was linked with a desire to eat more and a tendency to overeat. Individuals who were sleeping less responded more to stimuli related to food, which was measured using different neurological markers. Individuals had higher brain activity in areas associated with reward when exposed to different things that reminded them of food (St. Onge et al., 2012).
Reductions in willpower
The longer we stay awake, the more likely we are to overeat or to eat foods that we were not planning on eating, in particular, those with a higher caloric content and carbs (Spiegel, Tasali, Penev, & Van Cauter, 2004). However, sleep deprivation leads to fatigue and ego depletion, when our willpower and ability to resist temptation decreases as we tire and go without sleep (Pilcher, Morris, Donnelly, & Feigl, 2015).
When we go without sleep, our self-control becomes much more precarious. It’s more difficult to resist a sweet or salty treat that is forbidden by our diet or to choose a healthy snack over an unhealthier option. If the food is freely available or within reach, it’s a lot more likely that we will eat it when our self-control drops (Pilcher, Morris, Donnelly, & Feigl, 2015).
More opportunities for eating
When we stay awake longer and spend more time not sleeping, it can also give us more opportunities to eat and to grab a snack, especially when our self-control drops, as detailed above. We simply have more time in which we can find a treat and eat it when we are trying to abstain or stick to a healthy diet and have more access to temptations. Boredom, in particular, or negative emotions can push towards foods and comfort foods especially (Moynihan et al., 2015).
When we are tired and still working, we are more likely to grab takeout or a quick snack rather than cook a meal, because that is easier. In those cases, we often come across more chances of temptation and fewer opportunities to resist.
How to improve your sleep
All this means that sleeping well and enough is an essential element of losing weight and, generally keeping our weight lower. Here are five ways you can improve your rest and the quality of your sleep.
1. Changes in diet
Some easy nutritional changes can make you sleep a lot better. Avoid drinking alcohol before bed. While it may help some people fall asleep, it disrupts your sleep structure and can lead to less restorative sleep or earlier awakening. Also, steer clear of caffeinated products past at least 6 pm. If you are especially sensitive to the effects of caffeine, don’t eat or drink anything with it after noon. A heavy meal right before bed can also make us sleep worse while our bodies try to digest the food, so it’s better to have a light supper.
2. Guided meditation
Meditation is a great way of relaxing with no side effects. You can meditate on your own or choose guided meditation apps like Insight Timer searching for meditations for ‘sleep’ that will offer the right instructions with some soothing music or natural sounds. Meditation can help your body feel relaxed and ready for bed.
3. Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves breathing deeply and progressively tensing then releasing muscle groups throughout the body. It involves taking a breath and holding it for a few seconds while tensing the muscles and then relaxing the muscle group when exhaling. This also helps your mind and body get ready for bed and is easy to do. See our post on 6 Exercises to Combat Stress for a more detailed description.
4. Grounding techniques
Grounding techniques can help if you struggle to fall asleep because of anxious or runaway thoughts. These involve focusing on something external, like cold water on your hands or the feel of your feet on the ground, or doing a mental technique to help you push unwanted thoughts away. You can visualize yourself doing a mundane task, like packing a suitcase for a holiday (my favourite!), recite a poem or say a phrase that calms you, counting backwards from 100 by 7s, or take note of 5 things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Doing these things tend to bring your thoughts to the present and give you a break from your worries.
5. Restrict electronic devices
It’s important to keep gadgets and devices away from your bed. Even with blue light filters or night mode (which have been shown not to help sleep), your device still emits light that can make your body think it’s daytime. In addition, a phone or tablet provide the opportunity for endless entertainment, so it can be hard to stop watching videos or scrolling through social media. It’s best to have them out of reach when you are going to bed.
Kim, T. W., Jeong, J. H., & Hong, S. C. (2015). The impact of sleep and circadian disturbance on hormones and metabolism. International Journal of Endocrinology, 2015, 591729. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/591729
Moynihan, A. B., van Tilburg, W. A., Igou, E. R., Wisman, A., Donnelly, A. E., & Mulcaire, J. B. (2015). Eaten up by boredom: Consuming food to escape awareness of the bored self. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 369. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00369
Nedeltcheva, A. V., Kilkus, J. M., Imperial, J., Schoeller, D. A., & Penev, P. D. (2010). Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity. Annals of Internal Medicine, 153, 435–441. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-153-7-201010050-00006
Pilcher, J. J., Morris, D. M., Donnelly, J., & Feigl, H. B. (2015). Interactions between sleep habits and self-control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 284. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00284
Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Penev, P., & Van Cauter, E. (2004). Brief communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Annals of Internal Medicine, 141, 846–850. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-141-11-200412070-00008
St-Onge, M. P., McReynolds, A., Trivedi, Z. B., Roberts, A. L., Sy, M., & Hirsch, J. (2012). Sleep restriction leads to increased activation of brain regions sensitive to food stimuli. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 95, 818–824. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.111.027383