Thoughts on Better Aging

Sleep Less, Weigh More

September 29th, 2014

Three ways sleep deprivation affects weight gain.

Do you get enough sleep? Are you happy with your weight? You might be surprised just how often a “no” to one of these questions goes with a “no” to the other. In fact, according to a growing body of research, there is a definitely link between sleep deprivation and obesity.

For example, one study from the American Journal of Epidemiology followed 60,000 subjects for 16 years to track the link between sleep and weight gain. At the beginning of the study, all the participants were at a healthy weight. By the end, those who got 5 hours of sleep or less per night were 15 percent more likely to be obese and 30 percent more likely to have gained 30 pounds over the course of the study, compared to those who got 7 hours of sleep or more.

There are three probable contributors to this relationship between sleep loss and weight gain:

Lack of Energy for Exercise

We all know how much of a challenge it can be to stay physically active when we’re tired. If you don’t get enough sleep, not only will you be unlikely to have energy for a workout left over at the end of a long day; you’ll also probably start avoiding everyday exertions like climbing the stairs or walking the dog. Less calories burned results in more of the food you eat stored in your body as fat.

Disruption of Hormones that Control Appetite

Hormones are a very important piece of the puzzle. Insomnia, lack of activity, and even weight gain itself can lead to hormonal and metabolic changes that make it very hard to stop gaining weight, much less lose that weight. Specifically, lack of sleep lowers levels of the hormone leptin while raising ghrelin. Low leptin means that your body doesn’t send the appropriate signals of fullness to the brain when you’ve eaten. Instead, you still feel hungry, and the feeling is worsened by an excess of ghrelin, the hormone associated with appetite.

Poor Diet Choices

Once ghrelin and leptin get out of balance, many individuals with poor sleep habits also end up making poor diet choices. For example, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that individuals who slept 5-6 hours per night consumed more calories than individuals with any other sleep pattern. To make matters worse, individuals seem to gravitate towards junk food the day after being sleep-deprived. Researchers at UC Berkeley believe this happens because insufficient sleep affects impulse control and decision making functions in the brain. This conclusion is based on a study they conducted by showing people pictures of food after a good night’s sleep and then after a poor night’s sleep and comparing their brain scans.

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