Sleep Loss Hampers Weight Loss Efforts

Study Shows Lack of Sleep May Prevent the Loss of Fat

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 04, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 4, 2010 -- If your diet isn't going as well as you had hoped, the problem may not be your food choices or exercise habits. It may be your sleeping habits. Sleep loss may hamper even your best attempts to lose weight, according to new research in the Oct. 5 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Overweight adults lost 55% less fat when they got 5.5 hours of sleep per night, compared with when they slept for 8.5 hours a night, the new study showed.

"Sleep loss can prevent the loss of fat and make the body stingier when it comes to using fat as a fuel," explains Plamen Penev, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. Instead, the body burns off lean body mass, he says. The weight loss may be the same at the end of the day, but people who get adequate sleep lose more fat than their counterparts who are sleep-deprived.

"The sleep loss slows the loss of fat and speeds the undesirable loss of lean body mass, which doesn't help the body burn energy or calories," he says. "Sleep loss is accompanied by an increase in hunger that makes it less likely that you could adhere to diet."

In general, "losing weight becomes a more difficult fight when you don't get adequate sleep," he tells WebMD.

Sleep Loss Impedes Dieting Efforts

The new study of 10 overweight adults was conducted in two, two-week intervals. Participants ate a low-calorie diet and were scheduled to sleep for 8.5 hours per night for two weeks and for 5.5 hours per night for two weeks. Researchers measured their weight loss, loss of fat, and fat-free body mass.

During the longer sleep intervention, participants on average got about 7 hours and 25 minutes of sleep per night, while they slept for 5 hours and 14 minutes during the shortened sleep intervention.

Men and women lost 55% less body fat and were hungrier at night during the 5.5-hour-sleep weeks, the study showed.

Participants lost about 6.6 pounds during each two-week intervention. The main difference was in terms of fat loss. During the two weeks where they got adequate sleep, men and women lost 3.1 pounds of fat and 3.3 pounds of fat-free body mass (which was mostly made up of protein). By contrast, men and women lost 1.3 pounds of fat and 5.3 pounds of fat-free mass when they slept for shorter amounts of time, the researchers report.

Participants saw close to a 10-point increase their levels of the appetite hormone ghrelin during the two weeks when their sleep was restricted to 5.5 hours per night. Ghrelin levels rose from 75 nanograms per liter of blood (ng/L) to 84 ng/L, the study showed.

Want to Lose Weight? Get Better Sleep

The new findings make sense to Michael Breus, PhD, author of Beauty Sleepand the clinical director of the sleep division for Arrowhead Health in Glendale, Ariz.

Leptin and ghrelin are two key hormones involved in modulating appetite, he explains. Leptin is the "stop" hormone that tells you to stop eating when you are full; ghrelin is the "go" hormone that tells you to keep eating.

"When you are not getting enough sleep, leptin, the stop hormone, goes down, and ghrelin, the go hormone, increases," he says. Less "stop" and more "go" can result in weight gain or prevent weight loss, Breus explains.

"The more time you sleep, the less time you have to eat," he adds.

"If you are trying to lose weight, make sleep a priority, and make sure get more than seven hours of sleep per night," he says.

Improving sleep hygiene can help.

"Don't eat for four hours before bed because sleeping slows your metabolism," he says. "Don't drink any caffeine after 2:30 p.m., and use the bedroom only for sleeping," Breus says.

"Exercise is good for weight loss and better sleep, just don't do it right before bed because it may keep you up at night," he says.

"If you are trying to diet and combine it with something that switches your metabolism so that you start losing protein instead of fat, it will be harder to diet, and you will have to diet harder to get the same benefit," says David M. Rapoport, MD, an associate professor of medicine and the director of Sleep Medicine Program at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City.

Still, "You can't substitute getting more sleep for less diet and exercise, but for any given effort, you will get more bang for your buck by being rested," he says.

The current 24/7 society where people are eternally connected and sleep loss is considered a badge of honor may play a role in the obesity epidemic, Rapoport says. "It is not the underlying cause of why we are becoming an obese society, but it may play a role."

Show Sources


Nedeltcheva, A. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2010: vol 153.

Michael Breus, PhD, clinical director, sleep division, Arrowhead Health, Glendale, Ariz.

Plamen Penev, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine, University of Chicago.

David M. Rapoport, MD, associate professor of medicine; director, Sleep Medicine Program, NYU School of Medicine, New York.

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