Dieting, Sleep, and Weight Gain

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Good sleep helps control weight. Poor sleep leads to weight gain and vice versa. These are general statements, of course, and individual experience may vary, but if you are trying to diet and lose weight or you are trying to improve your sleep, it pays to keep these interactions in mind.

Obesity rates have risen in the US and worldwide in recent years as sleep times have (possibly) declined. It is important to not read too much into this. It is interesting, though, and there may be a little bit of cause-and-effect going on.

Sleep deprivation and weight gain

Sleep loss and deprivation causes a host of problems from irritability to impaired cognition, the most notable of which is weight gain.

Sleep deprivation affects four primary hormones related to weight gain.

  • Ghrelin, nicknamed the hunger hormone, tells your brain when it’s hungry and it should eat.
  • Leptin, nicknamed the satiety hormone, tells your brain when it’s full.
  • Cortisol is a stress hormone that activates upon waking and conserves energy as fat reserves to use as fuel during your day.
  • Insulin is a peptide hormone that regulates your body’s ability to process food into energy.

Sleep deprivation increases your ghrelin production and reduces your leptin production, so your brain thinks it’s hungrier more often, and is less able to recognize when it’s full. Sleep deprivation also affects your body’s ability to properly metabolize carbohydrates. As a result, you’ll experience higher blood sugar levels, leading to increased insulin and cortisol production. As your insulin resistance grows, your body doesn’t process fat and sugars as well, instead storing more of it as fat, resulting in weight gain.

Self-control

Sleep deprivation also reduces your self-control, making it difficult to stick to a diet or making one more prone to indulge in junk food. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that sleep-deprived individuals were likelier to eat high-carb snacks and engage in more late-night snacking that individuals who received sufficient sleep.

Individuals who slept less than 5 hours per night were likelier to consume more calories, less water, and more carbohydrates overall, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Appetite. Some researchers have even equated the cravings associated with sleep deprivation to be similar to those brought on by marijuana use.

Sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to snack later at night, eat bigger portions, and experience higher cravings for high-carbohydrate and fat-rich foods. Making matters worse is that sleep deprivation also reduces your energy and increases fatigue, so you’re less inclined to exercise and work off that extra weight gain.

What does all this mean? When your body doesn’t get enough sleep, you’re likelier to gain weight. It’s important to get enough quality uninterrupted sleep during the night (typically 7 to 7.5 hours for the average adult) to maintain a healthy weight.

Sleep deprivation and weight gain

Source: CDC

Insomnia and weight

Insomnia can be caused by both physical and emotional factors. Many individuals experience stressful or anxious thoughts as a result of their weight, whether they weigh a “normal” amount or not. These thoughts can lead to depression, which is a co-morbid condition with insomnia. People who are stressed, depressed, or anxious have a tougher time falling asleep at night.

Insomnia is also linked with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. Some individuals rely on diet pills and weight loss products that wreak havoc on the body and typically contain sleep-disrupting stimulants like caffeine or guarana. Furthermore, dieting individuals or those with an eating disorder are prone to ingesting higher amounts of caffeine than normal in an attempt to maintain their energy levels despite reduced caloric intake – this can energize the body and make it tougher to sleep at night.

Behavioral therapy can help individuals with insomnia as much of it is related to managing thought processes and behaviors. Insomnia stemming from a physical condition such as obesity or sleep apnea can be treated by addressing the physical condition first. Insomnia from an emotional condition can be alleviated by avoiding high caloric intake and snacking late at night, sticking to a strict bedtime and wake schedule, and incorporating relaxation techniques before bed. Melatonin has also been shown to be an effective sleep aid for insomnia.

Can insomnia cause you to lose weight? In most cases, insomnia causes sleep deprivation that in turn causes weight gain. In the instances where insomnia causes sleep loss, it is often correlated with increased levels of physical activity during the day that counteract the effects of the sleep deprivation.

Does sleeping late cause weight gain?

Despite all this talk about the importance of getting sufficient sleep to prevent weight gain, it’s important not to confuse the relationship between sleep and weight gain. Sleeping too late, or oversleeping, does not result in sleep loss. In fact, it may do the reverse.

Researchers at Northwestern Medicine found that late sleepers consume more calories overall, typically later in the day, and don’t eat as well either – consuming less fruits and vegetables, and twice as much fast food and sodas than early risers. If late sleepers don’t take care to exercise, these additional calories can amount to as many as 2 pounds per month in weight gain for night owls. Plus, overeating at night energizes the body, which can cause these night owls to suffer from insomnia.

The Northwestern study also noted the importance of not only how many calories you consume, but also the timing of your meals in relation to your circadian clock. Your circadian rhythms regulate many of your bodily functions, including your metabolism, core body temperature, hormone production, organ function, and sleep-wake cycle.

Metabolic syndrome

Lack of sleep increases your risk for metabolic syndrome. Fragmented sleep disrupts glucose levels and can lead to related disorders. Metabolic syndrome is marked by two or more of the following: hypertension, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and obesity, especially with excess weight in the belly. It is very common in middle-aged Americans.

Losing 30 minutes of sleep per day over a sustained period can increase your body’s insulin resistance. Due to hectic work schedules, many people accumulate sleep debt during the workweek and aim to makeup for it on the weekend. However, this pattern can result in long-term metabolic problems that lead to type 2 diabetes and obesity, one 2015 study found.

Here are some scary numbers that should convince you of the value of sleep. A study found individuals who receive 6 to 7 hours of sleep per night are twice as likely to have metabolic syndrome than individuals who receive 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Further long sleepers also have an increased risk of the syndrome.

An article published in the scientific Journal Sleep a few years ago went so far as to claim sleep problems could predict the onset of metabolic syndrome. Both loud snoring and difficulty falling asleep were correlated with later development of the syndrome. Further, for people without other risk factors, loud snoring (but not difficulty falling asleep) increases the risk of metabolic syndrome. The authors suggest that sleep fragmentation caused by snoring may lead to both weight gain and an immune system response with higher levels of stress markers in the body.

In general, sleep disturbances can increase oxidative stress which may contribute to weight gain. And of course, apnea, often precipitated by excessive body weight, causes fragmented sleep and stress on the body.

Improving sleep through diet

Can losing weight help you get better sleep? Yes. One study of obese people found that weight loss surgery significantly reduced their sleep problems, reducing snoring from 82% to 14%, sleep apnea from 33% to 2%, daytime sleepiness from 39% to 4%, and poor sleep quality from 39% to 2%.

Sleeping more than 9 hours or less than 6 hours is linked with increased weight gain. Adjusting your sleep time to somewhere in the 7 to 7.5-hour range may help you shed some extra pounds.

Sleep apnea

Affecting an estimated 18 million Americans, sleep apnea describes sleep-disordered breathing that causes the individual to stop breathing during sleep. In its mildest forms, it causes heavy snoring by the individual, and in extreme cases of obstructive sleep apnea, the person can gasp and choke to the point that they are repeatedly roused from sleep during the night. Sleep apnea is heavily associated with obesity, heart attacks, stroke, and excessive daytime sleepiness.

Being overweight puts one at higher risk of sleep apnea, because the increased weight can put more pressure on the airways and make it more difficult to breathe during the night. Because many individuals with sleep apnea are also overweight, they may be less prone to exercise or eat well. Further, the daytime sleepiness resulting from their sleep apnea may make them even less inclined to change diet or exercise, since they experience lowered energy levels, poorer mood, and decreased self-control from accumulated sleep loss.

Treating sleep apnea with the use of a CPAP machine can lessen symptoms, leading an affected individual to get more quality, less-disrupted sleep during the night. Plus, better sleep alleviates the symptoms of sleep deprivation, making it easier for individuals to alter their diet and begin an exercise program.

Weight loss is often prescribed as a treatment for sleep apnea, based on studies showing that weight loss can reduce symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.

Paleo and low-carb diets

Individuals who adhere to a paleo or low-carb diet may find themselves suffering from insomnia. Typically, diet-related insomnia subsists after the first few nights, once your body has adjusted to the new regimen and/or reduced caloric intake. However, if it persists after the first few nights, you may need to incorporate more carbohydrate-rich foods into your diet to help your sleep cycle return to normal.

Carbohydrate-rich foods induces sleep onset by assisting tryptophan and serotonin production in your brain, which helps reduce anxiety and kicks off a melatonin release, causing you to fall asleep. Low-carb diets restrict the foods you eat that are tied to bigger releases of insulin. Insulin helps your body turn tryptophan into serotonin, and carbohydrate-rich foods induce insulin production more than those with fewer carbohydrates.

While in the long-term, low-carb diets help you lose weight and improve your blood sugar levels by stabilizing your energy, in the short-term the lack of carbohydrates feels like a shock to your system as your body strains to convert the tryptophan to serotonin, interrupting your sleep in the process. If you’re prone to eating sugary, carbohydrate-rich foods, a better approach is to ease into your low-carb diet rather than going cold turkey. This makes it easier for your body to adjust, which may make it easier for you to stick to your diet as well. Gradually trim the carbohydrates in your diet over a period of several days.

On the other hand, if you’re allowed a certain amount of carbohydrates in your diet plan, shift your carbohydrate-rich meals to later in the day, when they’re likelier to induce sleep.

More tips for trouble sleeping while dieting

Dieters are prone to drink more, whether they’re on a liquid diet or they’re just drinking more water to feel full. This can increase your nighttime bathroom trips and interfere with sleep, so be careful to watch your liquid intake later in the day to avoid this from happening.

Hunger makes it tougher to fall asleep. A small healthy snack before bedtime can help, especially if composed of one of these foods that help you sleep better.

A final recommendation for ensuring a longer, better night’s sleep includes watching your stimulant intake later in the day (caffeine, alcohol, etc).

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