How Sleep Affects Your Weight and How to Get More Quality Sleep

At the height of my dieting/cardio phase, I was waking myself up early several times a week so I could do an hour of aerobics in the morning. Most nights I was getting less than six hours of sleep (broken hours at that!). Little did I know this kind of regime is a recipe for disaster when it comes to weight loss. Trading sleep for exercise is not an effective or healthy plan--in fact, it can be downright disastrous.

After a couple months of keeping this ridiculous routine up, I became unbelievably exhausted, and experienced a constant feeling of feeling foggy and lightheaded. It wasn’t even physically possible for me to exercise anymore, and I had to take several weeks off just to recuperate enough to feel semi-normal.

Although it would be a couple more years before I would learn about nourishing my body with real food, from that point on I knew sleep was an essential part of keeping healthy and losing weight.

Does sleep really affect your weight?

Yes! And there are studies out there that demonstrate the connection between sleep and weight:

- One 2009 study showed that people who slept less than 6 hours per night had a notably higher body mass index (BMI) than those who got more sleep, despite the fact that the overweight participants were more physically active and burned more calories than those in a normal weight range.

- Another study from Chicago revealed that just two nights of sleep depravity caused the appetite to increase.

- Another research project tracked around 1,000 volunteers and found that those who slept less than 8 hours a night were not only hungrier in general, but also had a higher percentage of body fat. People who logged the least hours of sleep were the heaviest.

How Sleep Affects Your Weight

- When you sleep less, your body doesn’t produce as much leptin--the hormone that helps you feel full. Less sleep also means more cortisol, another hormone that affects your appetite. So, the less you sleep, the more hunger pangs you’ll feel during the day.

- Loss of sleep interferes with the body’s natural carbohydrate metabolism and blood sugar regulation. If you’re not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you’re much more likely to suffer from blood sugar swings and eventually insulin resistance. In fact, lack of sleep can actually induce insulin resistance in healthy individuals--even after only a few nights!

- Less sleep also means less natural growth hormone production. This hormone directly controls the distribution of fat and muscle throughout the body. Less growth hormone equals more fat and less muscle--not what we’re looking for when it comes to health and weight loss.

But what if I can't sleep?

Neither could I. Not sleeping sort of becomes a physical and mental habit, and it can take some effort to change it. Actually "effort" is the wrong word, because the last thing you need to do is stress and strain over getting sleep. You need to relax and learn to rest your body and mind. Here are some basic suggestions (which you may have heard before but they’re still important):

Eat well, sleep well. When the body isn’t getting enough quality food, it triggers the production of adrenaline and cortisol--two hormones that can keep you awake. To avoid this, you need to be eating the right foods and enough of them. Starving yourself is not an option.

It took changing to real food diet for me to eventually accomplish getting 8 hours of sleep regularly. I fought tooth and nail to get more than 5-6 hours when I was bent on slashing calories and fat, and the sleep I did get was in restless spurts. Once I began eating a diet rich in nourishing foods, getting enough sleep became a reality for the first time in years.
Spend the last 1-2 hours before bed in a restful way. Don’t run around finishing up chores or projects. Rest. Whatever that means to you, do it. It might be a warm bath, a good book, some calming music or even your favorite TV show. It just needs to be something that helps you wind down from the day. (If you’re desperate, a glass of wine might do the trick, but if you rely on alcohol to fall asleep every single night it could hurt you in the long run.)

Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and SurvivalTurn off the lights! The body requires some level of darkness to produce melatonin, the neurotransmitter that helps you sleep. So turn off the bright lights and spend that time before bed with just enough light to enjoy your restful activities.

Caffeine can really interfere with your sleep. And not getting enough sleep can make you crave more caffeine, so it’s easy to get a vicious cycle going here! Avoid caffeine during the last several hours of the day. Sensitive individuals may need to stay away from caffeine anytime after noon, or may need to cut it out altogether to really get results.

Nap if you need to, but not too much. Limit daytime naps to less than an hour, and take a nap before 4:00 in the afternoon if possible. You want to condition your body to sleep mainly at night. Too much napping can interfere with natural sleep cycles. But if you feel tired, a quick power nap can help you function better and think more clearly during your day until you get your nighttime sleep habits under control.

You can also try supplements that promote sleep. There are a lot of options, and some are better (and safer) than others, so I won’t try to go into great detail in this post. But I've personally found great success with magnesium (Epsom salt baths are great) and GABA.

On a side note: If you’re really sleep-deprived, you might notice yourself feeling more exhausted once you start sleeping better. This is just a normal reaction as your body recovers from so much lost sleep. Do your best to give your body time to sleep and recuperate if you can. Usually this will resolve itself in a few weeks or months, depending on how much time you spent in sleep deprivation.

This post is a part of Real Food Wednesday hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop today.

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