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Food and Nutrition

Food for Thought: To Lose Weight, Gain Zzz’s

Stephanie Chen, RD | Nutrition Specialist
/ November 19, 2020

Maybe you’ve had this thought before: “I’m eating right, drinking mostly water, and exercising more – but I’m still not losing weight. What gives?!”

The answer could be in your sleep. 

Good sleep is a cornerstone of good health, and especially of weight loss. Many studies have uncovered a correlation between poor sleep, obesity, and weight gain, as well as slowed weight loss.  This may be because sleep deprivation impairs your body’s regulation of neurotransmitters that influence your appetite. These neurotransmitters, which in general are chemical signals that help your nerves communicate to each other the state of your body, are ghrelin – which promotes hunger – and leptin – which promotes feeling full. Research suggests that insufficient sleep leads to increased ghrelin and decreased leptin. By throwing off your normal balance of these neurotransmitters, staying up late can make you feel hungrier during the day than you would otherwise. 

Furthermore, sleep loss changes your food preferences by turning up the volume on your brain’s reward system – meaning you crave and gain more satisfaction from eating calorie-dense foods rich in fat, sugar, and carbs. Sleep deprivation also dulls your frontal lobe, where resides your prefrontal cortex, the “thinking” part of your brain that helps plan and make long-term decisions rather than short-term ones. This impaired cognitive ability can further limit your ability to make good dietary choices, like choosing healthy food options and limiting your portion sizes. And anecdotally, staying up late gives you more opportunity for unplanned late night snacking, and can throw off your meal timing for the next day.

Besides impacting your food intake, sleep deprivation also wreaks havoc on how your body metabolizes food. Research suggests it can decrease your resting metabolic rate, which means your body will burn fewer calories and try to conserve energy throughout the day. Scarily, sleep loss can also decrease your insulin sensitivity and thus predispose you to the development of type 2 diabetes in the long term. 

As if that weren’t enough, sleep deprivation can make you feel especially tired the next day, which has other ways of hurting your weight loss progress. For example, with lower energy levels and an impaired ability to concentrate, exercise can feel more exhausting and sometimes be less safe: imagine lifting weights or doing any other exercise requiring coordination while you’re drowsy and fatigued. 

By now, you’re pretty sure you should be getting more high quality sleep. But maybe the problem is: how? People who have trouble falling or staying asleep can try practicing better sleep hygiene. Here are some ways to get started: 

  • Set a consistent routine. This is huge! Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends. If this is hard for you, set a daily wake-up alarm and a daily wind-down-for-bed alarm. And if your current sleep schedule is very far from ideal, try adjusting it in one-hour or half-hour increments rather than all at once. 
  • Make the bedroom a no-electronics zone. Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smartphones, from the bedroom. Both because the lights and sounds may disturb or lower the quality of your sleep, and because they may tempt you into sabotaging your sleep in favor of binge watching Netflix. 
  • Tweak the timing of your meals. Avoid large meals and alcohol a few hours before bedtime, and avoid coffee after noon. Try frontloading your water intake during the day and restricting it closer to bedtime so your bladder doesn’t interrupt your slumber. 
  • Get exercise and sunlight during the day. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night, and getting sunlight helps set your circadian rhythm. If you work nights, consider investing in a light therapy lamp that simulates daylight while working, and using blackout curtains when you sleep.
  • Calm and replace anxious thoughts. If worrying about something is keeping you up, try writing it down in a notebook and putting it out of your head. Whatever it is, you can deal with it equally well or better by thinking about it tomorrow, and getting a good night’s sleep puts you in the best position to do so. Instead, try listening to a relaxing audiobook, or thinking about something non-stimulating that is neutral / positive, like a list of things that brought you joy or gratitude during the day. 
  • Learn to associate your bed with sleeping, not tossing and turning. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a relaxing, non-stimulating activity (no electronics!) for a while until you feel tired enough to try again. 

Keep in mind: like all good habit-setting, it may take you a week or several for the habit to stick, but once it does, you will have a much easier time falling asleep and waking up. Focus on gradual improvement. And take heart: your weight loss efforts will also help improve your sleep

One last note: If there is just no way you’ll be able to get enough sleep no matter what you try, you may be able to counteract some of sleep deprivation’s harmful effects with exercise. Research is not conclusive – some have studied High Intensity Interval Training and others simply looked at “regular exercise” – but there is evidence suggesting that exercise can counteract the insulin resistance that sleep loss causes, and of course promote weight loss in general through burning calories. However, sleep is still crucial to restoring your body and brain to their best working state, so try your best to get enough. After a good night’s rest, the world will look brighter, and your weight loss goals will be that much closer!

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