Sleep deprivation has many negative consequences. Think about all those sleepy mornings and mid-afternoon urges to nap after lunch. You may even notice that you feel more irritable when you don’t sleep well. One of the most frustrating side effects when you’re trying to stay healthy, is lack of sleep weight gain.
Research shows that sleep loss regulates hormones that control your appetite. You’re more likely to crave high fat and high carbohydrate foods when you don’t sleep. Your stress hormone levels also go up, which prevents weight loss. Can lack of sleep cause weight gain? Here’s why it happens and what you can do to fix it.
What Causes Sleep Loss?
Many internal and external cues can throw off your sleep. Your sleep cycle is calculated by the circadian rhythm, which is a 24-hour body clock that dictates when you get tired. If you’ve ever turned off your alarm clock in the morning and allowed yourself to sleep as long as possible, it was your circadian rhythm that decided what time you woke up.
In a perfect world, your circadian rhythm would never become influenced by outside factors. But thanks to the digital age, our inner sleep cycle is always being tested. Light exposure is the driving force behind the circadian rhythm. At night when it gets dark, your brain releases melatonin into your bloodstream to make you feel tired. Even dim light from a TV or tablet can tell your brain to stop making it. As a result, you can’t fall asleep at night when you need to, which often causes an avalanche of bad sleeping habits. You may turn to alcohol to help sedate you at night or drink too much coffee to stay awake during the day. Eventually, you are keeping yourself awake by making bad lifestyle choices.
For some people, a medical condition is to blame for their sleep loss. Primary insomnia is a stand-alone sleep disorder that is not influenced by another condition. On the other hand, secondary insomnia is often a symptom of an underlying disease. Many medical conditions cause insomnia because the symptoms make it hard for a person to relax at night. The following conditions may cause sleep loss (1):
- Chronic pain such as low back pain, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis
- Asthma or allergies
- Gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel disease or acid reflux
- Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases
- Endocrine problems such as hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism
- Mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety
Certain medications can also cause sleep loss. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the following medications may cause insomnia (8). If you are on one of these drugs, you may want to ask your doctor to adjust your dose or switch to a brand that does not affect your sleep.
- Antidepressants (bupropion and fluoxetine)
Other causes of sleep loss may include sharing the bed with a partner who snores or moves around a lot. Poor sleep hygiene can keep you awake. For example, playing video games or working on a laptop in bed may cause you to associate your bedroom with work or entertainment and not sleep. Any light exposure in your room can keep you awake. Eating a large meal at night, drinking too much caffeine during the day, and being chronically stressed can all affect your sleep.
Lack of Sleep And Weight Gain
Can lack of sleep cause weight gain? You bet it can. Research shows that sleeping less than five hours a night increases the risk of gaining weight. According to one study, men who were always sleep deprived ate more calories and craved more high-calorie foods (2). Another study found that women who sleep for six hours or less each night were more likely to gain 11 pounds than women who slept seven hours (2).
People who don’t sleep well are more likely to become obese. A 2016 report indicated that sleep restriction alters the levels of a chemical signal located in the endocannabinoid system that affects the brain’s reward system and appetite. Researchers at the University of Chicago evaluated 11 men and three women aged 18 to 30 years old. The subjects were put on a fixed diet. One group was allowed to sleep for 8.5 hours while another group was restricted to 4.5 hours. After four weeks, the researchers collected blood samples from both groups. Results showed that the sleep deprived group had higher levels of endocannabinoids in the afternoon. These high concentration levels lasted longer than when subjects got a full night of sleep. Similarly, the subjects in the sleep deprived group reported being hungry around the time their endocannabinoid levels became elevated (3).
The subjects were then asked to fast on the fourth night after dinner until the next afternoon at lunch. They were allowed to pick their own meals after the fast. Both groups consumed about 90 percent of their daily calories within their first meal after the fast. However, the sleep-deprived group continued to consume more food in between meals while their endocannabinoid levels were highest (3). Researchers of the article explained that you’re less likely to resist junk food or make healthy food choices when you’re sleep deprived.
Another study confirmed the link that inadequate sleep duration and length increases your risk of obesity. According to the study, your body modulates neuroendocrine function and glucose metabolism when you sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, it alters your glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Notably, sleep loss increases your evening levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also increases your ghrelin levels, which is a hormone that tells you to eat, and decreases your leptin levels, which is a hormone that signals to your brain that you’re full. As a result, you have increased hunger and appetite when you’re sleep deprived, which puts you at a greater risk of developing obesity (4).
Research from Harvard indicated that people who are sleep deprived weighed more than those who get enough sleep at night (5). In addition to experiencing altered hormone levels, tired people are less likely to exercise, which decreases the number of calories they burn. Individuals who are sleep deprived may also take in more calories than those who sleep more merely because they are awake longer and there are more opportunities to do so.
A 2006 Nurses Health Study followed around 60,000 women over 16 years to keep track of their sleep habits, diet, weight, and other areas of their lifestyle. When the survey started, all women were healthy. None were obese. After 16 years, the women who slept for five hours or less each night had a 15 percent or higher increased risk of being obese when compared to women who slept seven hours. Women who were considered short sleepers had a 30 percent greater risk of gaining as much as 30 pounds by the end of the study (6). This data suggests that your sleep habits may be able to dictate how much weight you could gain in the future.
Sleep deprivation causes you to make poor decisions because your brain cells lack rest. Because of this, you are more likely to choose junk foods over healthy ones for instant satisfaction and energy gains. Even if you spend enough time in bed but don’t get the quality of sleep you need, you could be at risk for weight gain as well as other health problems. A 2012 report indicated that sleep loss also increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes (7).
According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, sleep deprivation does not affect the amount of calories you burn. However, it affects how many you’ll take in. The study reported that sleep-deprived people and good sleepers both burned the same amount of calories, but the sleep-deprived group took in approximately 300 more calories a day (8). It only takes 3500 calories to add a pound of fat to your waistline. Because of this, it’s easy for weight gain to creep up on you.
Sleep loss causes your cells to become metabolically groggy as well. Notably, cells that are deprived of sleep don’t react to insulin as well as they should. Insulin is needed to regulate your energy storage. In fact, sleep loss causes your insulin levels to drop by 30 percent, according to research published by the University of Chicago Medicine (9). Insulin disruption could put you at an increased risk of weight gain, diabetes, and other health concerns. When your fat cells go into storage mode, they circulate in the blood, which could lead to serious health problems.
Tips For Improving Your Sleep
Approximately 17 percent of adults in the United States get less than six hours of sleep a night, which means that 53 million people may be at risk of becoming obese. Experts indicate that the sleeping patterns of those who do not sleep well are not random. When improving your sleep hygiene, it’s important to consider your environmental, social and cultural factors (7).
Many people can’t sleep because they are stressed. Exercise is a great way to reduce stress while also burning calories. Research shows that individuals who exercise are better sleepers than those who don’t. According to a 2013 study, exercise is associated with improved sleep quality. The study indicated that lack of physical activity was one of the most common characteristics of people who don’t sleep well. Further research shows that individuals who have been diagnosed with insomnia tend to have lower levels of aerobic activity (10).
Although some experts recommend exercising first thing in the morning, some research indicates that an exercise session three hours before bed can help you sleep. According to one study, exercising a few hours before bed reduced the amount of time it took subjects to fall asleep. It also eased their pre-sleep tension and allowed them to sleep longer (11).
Luckily, research shows that there is not much difference between high-intensity exercise and moderate exercise when it comes to sleep improvements. A 16 week trial of people who exercised moderately was shown to improve mood, quality of life, and sleep quality (11). When compared to other cognitive behavioral interventions, exercise was found to be just as effective at improving sleep.
In addition to exercising, you can improve your sleep hygiene by avoiding naps during the day. Sleeping during the day has been shown to disrupt your circadian rhythm (12). One study found that people who took a long afternoon nap were more tired during the day (13). Another study found that although napping for 30 minutes or less increased daytime brain function, longer naps cause adverse reactions to health and quality of sleep (14).
According to some forms of cognitive behavioral therapy, sleep restriction is a method that can be used to help you sleep. It works by asking you to limit your sleep or go to bed later than you normally would. The idea is that the more tired you are, the quicker and longer you will sleep. Taking naps during the day could work against you if you want to get the sleep you need to keep weight off. Reverse psychology also works well if you’re in a pinch. Lay in bed and tell yourself not to fall asleep. Studies show that you’re more likely to doze off when you’re not so focused on it.
Being consistent is one of the best things you can do to improve your sleep. Your body likes knowing what is coming next. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up every day at the same time, even on the weekends. One study found that people who went to bed later on the weekends than they did during the week had a poorer sleep (15). Irregular sleep habits can also disrupt your melatonin production and keep you awake longer than you’d like (16). Establish a bedtime routine by going back to basics. Most kids sleep better when they have the three B’s: bath, book, and bed. The same method can be applied to adults, too.