Sleep Health

How Sleep Contributes to Weight Management

Good sleep is just as important to your health as a nutritious diet and regular exercise. Read on to learn about the relationship between sleep and body weight.

By Jack Mitcham

The secret to losing weight is to burn more calories than you consume. Most strategies for weight loss include dieting and exercising. But did you know that your sleep quality is just as important?   

“Nutrition, exercise and sleep are the three pillars of health and one simply cannot perform optimally without the others,” says Katherine Hall, a sleep coach with Somnus, a guided course on sleep therapy for people with sleep problems. “That being said, sleep may just be the most important. The physical consequences on the body caused by one night of short sleep can exceed those caused by poor nutrition and exercise.” 

Research has shown that insufficient sleep can lead to obesity and other weight-related health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. That’s because poor sleep can alter hormones involved with metabolism, hunger and feelings of fullness. It also weakens your resolve and makes it harder for you to resist unhealthy foods. And, without adequate sleep, you’re more likely to be too tired to get out and exercise. 

The good news is that getting a good night’s sleep is attainable. And, when you start the day well rested, it’s actually easier for you to lose weight and keep it off.

How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect Your Weight?

Researchers have identified several factors associated with poor sleep that can adversely impact eating habits and ultimately your weight.

Increased appetite

When we starve our bodies and brains of adequate sleep, we become famished, according to research published in the journal Physiology & Behavior. Researchers found that people who sleep poorly consume more calories, have poor dietary habits, and are more apt to be obese. It’s a multi-edged sword, as sleeping less means you have more time to eat, require more food to sustain wakefulness, and are less likely to resist fattening foods.

Insufficient sleep also throws your appetite hormones out of balance. “Adequate rest helps the body maintain normal levels of ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that regulate appetite,” Hall explains. “Leptin is the chemical that tells your brain when you’re full, while ghrelin is the exact opposite. Ghrelin tells your brain that you’re not satisfied and you need to eat.”

But when we don’t get enough sleep, “you end up with too little leptin in your body while ghrelin, on the other hand, amps right up!” Hall adds. “So even though you may have eaten already, ghrelin makes your body think that it’s hungry and it needs more calories. Short sleep is a proven recipe for weight gain.”

“A good night’s rest also keeps the body’s cortisol levels within normal range,” Hall says. Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone. “Too little sleep leads to a spike [in cortisol],” she says. “A spike tells the body to preserve energy, resulting in fewer calories burned and less fat lost.”

Metabolism changes

Metabolism is defined as the biochemical processes involved in the amount of energy (or calories) the body burns in order to maintain itself. Mounting evidence shows that insufficient sleep can wreak havoc on metabolism by restricting the body’s sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that regulates the amount of glucose, or sugar, in the blood.  

Just four nights of poor sleep can throw you into a phenomenon called “metabolic grogginess,” dropping the body’s sensitivity to insulin by more than 30 percent, according to a group of University of Chicago researchers. “This decreases the body’s ability to turn sugar, starches, and other foods into energy, storing them as fat instead,” Hall says. 

Repeated, elevated levels of insulin will lead to a condition called insulin resistance which is at the center of diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease,” says Dr. Morgan Nolte, founder of the online program Weight loss for Health. “This is why research has shown that getting less than seven hours of sleep a night increases your risk of getting these diseases.” 

Poor sleep can also affect the digestion of lipids from food, according to a recent study in the Journal of Lipid Research. For the study, researchers had participants eat a high-fat dinner after four nights of sleep restriction. Most of the participants said they felt less satisfied after eating the meal when they were sleep deprived compared to when they had eaten it after being well rested. Afterwards, researchers compared their blood samples and found that, after eating, instead of their lipids evaporating, they were being stored in the body, essentially a recipe for weight gain.

Bottom line, Dr. Nolte says, Losing weight is not about balancing calories, it’s about lowering your insulin. Once you recognize the hormonal effect poor sleep has on elevated insulin levels, you’ll be more motivated to prioritize good sleep. Poor sleep contains neither carbs nor calories. but can contribute to weight gain.”

Fighting cravings

When you’re sleep deprived, not only do you have extra time in your day — or night — to nosh on food, your hunger spikes. This is due to the timing and release of your appetite-controlling hormones falling out of whack, making you more apt to crave foods rich in calories and carbohydrates. 

“People who have inconsistent terrible sleep will have cravings for calorie-dense foods,” says Stephen Light, certified sleep science coach and co-owner of Nolah Mattress. “In this scenario, they might over-consume food and go beyond the limit of their diet’s calorie intake. When this happens, it ruins their weight loss journey since they’re taking in more calories than they can burn, leading to weight gain.” 

A study published in Nature Communications adds insult to injury, finding that just one night of sleep deprivation can impair activity in the frontal lobe, the complex decision-making area of the brain. This makes it much harder for you to turn down those fattening foods. It’s like being intoxicated and lacking the mental acuteness to make healthy food choices.   

Getting enough sleep is the obvious solution, Light says. “My advice for someone who wants to lose weight is to set a regular sleeping schedule. Having a set schedule for sleeping trains your body to get an optimal amount of sleep,” he says. “Done successfully, and you’ll have no hunger episodes for calorie-rich food.”

Less energy for physical exercise

Exercise burns calories and can help you lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle. It can also extend the time you spend in restorative sleep, says Dr. Anam Umair, a registered dietitian with Marham, a digital healthcare solution in Pakistan. 

But when your sleep is lacking, you feel fatigued, sleepy, and just not in the mood to get up and exercise. “Sleep deprivation is a weight loss blocker,” agrees Chris Higgins, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer with Calisthenics Gear, says. “It’s critical to weight loss and it ensures that the body will be able to perform optimally during workout training. Quality and restful night time rest is part of the overall healthy lifestyle adoption which is a requirement for an individual hoping to achieve his or her fitness goals.”

Leading a sedentary lifestyle puts you at an increased risk for insomnia and sleep disturbances, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. And that creates a seemingly never-ending cycle. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help break that cycle, Dr. Umar says. “A diet, if coupled with exercise, can regulate your sleeping pattern.”

Can The Foods You Eat Affect How You Sleep? 

It’s time to consider your sleep nutrition because what you eat, as well as when you eat it, can affect how well you sleep and how awake and alert you feel during the day.

Foods that promote sleep

  • Dairy: Go ahead and heat up that glass of warm milk before bedtime. Dairy products, like milk, contain tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor to the mood-stabilizing hormone serotonin, and the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, both of which can help you sleep.
  • Turkey: You know that groggy feeling you get after consuming copious amounts of turkey on Thanksgiving? Turns out it’s not all in your head. Turkey also contains sleep-enhancing tryptophan. 
  • Almonds: If you’re looking for a healthy snack before bedtime, try reaching for a can of almonds. The nuts contain high doses of the sleep hormone melatonin. They’re also packed with magnesium and calcium, two minerals that can help relax your muscles so you can comfortably drift off to sleep.
  • Chamomile tea: Chamomile tea is often referred to as a natural tranquilizer for its ability to tame inflammation and ward off anxiety and insomnia. It’s secret ingredient is the antioxidant apigenin.  
  • Tart cherry juice: Tart cherries are a natural source of melatonin. In fact, studies have shown that people who drank tart cherry juice before bedtime actually slept an hour longer than people who did not consume the beverage before bed. 
  • Lavender tea: Lavender essential oils and candles have been shown to improve sleep quality. It turns out lavender supplements can work just as well, and perhaps better, than lavender-scented products. 
  • Kiwi: These delicious little fruits make a great dessert because they’re rich in serotonin and antioxidants that help promote sleep.  
  • White rice: Rice is both a carbohydrate and a high glycemic index food, both of which are associated with shorter sleep onset. 
  • Walnuts: Like almonds, walnuts are a good source of tryptophan. Grabbing a handful before bedtime may help you sleep better at night. 
  • Bananas: Bananas are another great dessert option because they contain sleep-inviting tryptophan.
  • Oatmeal: This breakfast mainstay may actually make a better night time treat. The grains in oatmeal naturally raise your blood sugar which makes you feel sleepy. Oats also contain a healthy dose of melatonin.

Foods that promote wakefulness

  • Coffee: Coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant that is notorious for keeping you awake. It does this by blocking the action of a natural brain chemical called adenosine. 
  • Green tea: You’d better not mix up your bags of sleep-inducing chamomile and green tea. That’s because green tea contains the amino acid L-Theanine, which helps keep you awake and alert. 
  • Chewing gum: Teachers should probably encourage gum chewing in class rather than discourage it. Research shows that chewing gum increases alertness and staves off the sleepies. Some gums brands contain vitamins or caffeine that can further boost your wakefulness. 
  • Raw veggies: Celery, carrots and other raw vegetables take longer to digest, so they are more likely to keep you awake. Tomatoes also contain tyramine, an amino acid that triggers the release of norepinephrine, a natural brain stimulant.
  • Spicy foods: Hot and spicy foods can elevate body temperature. Body temperature naturally drops before you fall asleep, so raising it may actually help keep you awake and alert.

Eating before bed

What you eat in the hours leading up to bedtime can greatly affect your sleep. Here are some issues to look out for: 

  • Don’t stuff yourself with so much food at dinner time that you feel miserable. It will only take longer for you to digest. Plus, the discomfort of going to bed with a full belly can interfere with sleep.  
  • Wait at least three hours after you’ve eaten dinner before going to bed. This allows your body time to digest your food and lessens your risk for acid reflux. 
  • Don’t go to bed with an empty stomach either, even if you’re trying to lose weight. A stomach that is growling and cramping with hunger pangs will make falling asleep a literal pain. 
  • Be careful not to guzzle too many beverages before bedtime. Doing so could have you getting up frequently at night to use the bathroom. 
  • Finally, listen to your body. Experiment with foods and see which ones help or hinder your sleep or wakefulness. Remember that what works for someone else may not work for you.

The Importance of Sleep Hygiene for Weight Management 

Improving your sleep quality not only gives you energy to exercise during the day, it also helps you make better food choices so you can stay on your weight loss or weight management plan. One way to improve your sleep is to improve your sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is the behavioral and environmental practices leading up to your bedtime. Here are some tips on how to improve your sleep hygiene: 

Exercise: According to researchers from Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, there is solid evidence that exercise during the day helps you fall asleep faster and have improved sleep quality when you do. However, exercise causes the body to release endorphins, which increases wakefulness. Thus, it’s best to exercise at least 2 hours before bedtime to give time for your body and mind to settle down. 

Nighttime routine: Establishing a nighttime routine about 30 minutes before bedtime signals to your body and brain that it’s time to start winding down for sleep. Some relaxing nighttime activities to incorporate include reading a book (not a smartphone or iPad), taking a bath, listening to soothing music, or meditating.

Cut out stimulants before bedtime: Avoid nicotine, and caffeine before bedtime. Nicotine, found in cigarettes and vapes, and caffeine, found in coffee or chocolate, are stimulants and should be avoided several hours before bedtime or they may interfere with your ability to fall asleep. 

Avoid too much alcohol before bed: Alcohol is a depressant, which can help you fall asleep faster. But too much can interfere with restorative REM and deep sleep. Alcohol can wake you in the middle of the night and make it difficult for you to fall back to sleep. 

Avoid blue light before bed: Reading is a great way to relax before bedtime, but not if it’s on an electrical device like a smartphone or iPad. These devices, as well as laptops and your television, emit blue light, which stimulates the brain, and interferes with sleep.

Invest in a new mattress and sheets: You’d be surprised how much your sleep surface can affect your sleep. A new mattress with plenty of cushioning and support—and topped with soft, breathable sheets—can do wonders for your sleep quality. 

Make sure to wear comfortable, breathable PJs: What you sleep on is just as important as what you sleep in. Your pajamas should be breathable and not too constrictive. Loose fitting cotton fabrics are a great choice to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Room temperature: Personal preference varies on the best temperature to set your thermostat to at night. Experts recommend that you set the temp a few degrees lower than you do during the day, about 65 degrees, or a target range between 60 and 67 degrees.

White noise/eye mask for light sleepers: If you are easily distracted at night, try cutting back on things that trigger your senses. For example, use a sound machine with white noise to camouflage background or outdoor noises, or wear a sleep mask to block out any distracting light.

Final Thoughts

Anyone can benefit from a healthy lifestyle that includes good nutrition, regular exercise and restful sleep. But don’t feel like you have to do it all on your own. Seek guidance from your doctor, nutritionist or even a personal trainer, especially if you have an underlying health condition that may limit your ability to exercise or restrict what you can or cannot eat. 

The key is to adopt a healthy lifestyle gradually and put realistic goals in place. Otherwise, your sleep may suffer, Dr. Umair cautions. “A strict diet and extreme calorie restriction can increase lethargy resulting in disturbed sleeping patterns,” he says. “But, healthy weight loss programs are not likely to affect your sleep schedule.”