Could lack of sleep be causing you to gain weight?
Think about it: If you’re feeling sleepy at work, you may be tempted to
reach for a cup of coffee (or several cups) and a doughnut for a quick shot of
energy. Later you may skip the gym and pick up takeout on your way home to your
family -- no time to cook. When you finally find yourself back in your bed, you
are too wound up to sleep.
Yael Levy recalls having chronic nightmares as far back as elementary school, when she was living in Israel. The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, she says her dreams were filled with images of suffering and death.
In one recurrent nightmare, Levy was trapped in a concentration camp, facing death. In another, she was drowning in deep water. At their worst, the nightmares occurred on an almost weekly basis, leaving her jittery and desperately fatigued.
"I would wake up so terrified that I was afraid...
It’s a vicious cycle, and eventually this sleep deprivation can sabotage
your waistline and your health.
It starts out innocently enough. “When you have sleep deprivation and are
running on low energy, you automatically go for a bag of potato chips or other
comfort foods,” saysSusan Zafarlotfi, PhD, clinical director of the Institute
for Sleep and Wake Disorders at Hackensack University Medical Center in New
The immediate result? You may be able to fight off sleepiness. The ultimate
result? Unwanted pounds as poor food choices coupled with lack of exercise set
the stage for obesity and further sleep loss.
“Sleep debt is like credit card debt,” Zafarlotfi says. “If you keep
accumulating credit card debt, you will pay high interest rates or your account
will be shut down until you pay it all off. If you accumulate too much sleep
debt, your body will crash.”
Not getting enough sleep is common -- even talked about with pride -- in the
U.S. “We brag about an all-nighter, but we do pay a price for staying up
late and getting up early,” says Mark Mahowald, MD, director of the Minnesota
Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Hennepin County.
Understanding the Sleep-Diet Connection
The sleep-diet connection is regular fodder for diet books and magazine
articles. Maybe you have even heard about the sleep diet, which suggests you
can lose weight while you catch your ZZZs.
And it’s true, sort of.
“It’s not so much that if you sleep, you will lose weight, but if you are
sleep-deprived, meaning that you are not getting enough minutes of sleep or
good quality sleep, your metabolism will not function properly,” explains
Michael Breus, PhD, author of Beauty Sleepand the clinical director of
the sleep division for Arrowhead Health in Glendale, Ariz.
On average, we need about 7.5 hours of quality sleep per night, he says. “If
you are getting this already, another half hour will not help you lose 10
pounds, but if you are a five-hour sleeper and start to sleep for seven hours a
night, you will start dropping weight.”
Exactly how lack of sleep affects our ability to lose weight has a lot to do
with our nightly hormones, explains Breus.
The two hormones that are key in this process are ghrelin and leptin.
“Ghrelin is the ‘go’ hormone that tells you when to eat, and when you are
sleep-deprived, you have more ghrelin,” Breus says. “Leptin is the hormone that
tells you to stop eating, and when you are sleep deprived, you have less
More ghrelin plus less leptin equals weight gain.
“You are eating more, plus your metabolism is slower when you are
sleep-deprived,” Breus says.