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Too Tired? The Importance of Sleep for Weight Control and Health

June 4, 2008
by Janice Baker, M.B.A., R.D., CDE

In my nutrition consultation and therapy practice, one of the first questions I ask all of my clients is: “how is your sleep?”  This may sound like an odd question coming from a registered dietitian, but more and more reasons to consider the effects of poor quality or lack of sleep are popping up all the time!

  Of all of the gadgets, supplements, potions and secret weight loss formulas, research is finding that  one of the most effective ways to manage and lose weight is to get a good night’s sleep.  An adequate amount of good quality sleep not only helps to give us energy to get through the day, but keeps our mind clear and working well.  However as our lives get busier with work and family obligations, as well as more time spent in front of television and computer screens, more and more people are sleeping only 5 to  6 hours a night (most experts on sleep recommend at least 7  to 8 hours per night).  A study in a group of nurses showed that less than 5 hours of sleep per night were as much as a third more likely to gain more than 30 pounds over the course of 16 years.  This amount of weight not only can contribute to overweight and obesity, but also a significantly higher risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure – diseases which are the majors causes of death and disability in the United States. 

     Different reasons contribute to the association between sleep deprivation and weight gain.  First, inadequate sleep can affect levels of 2 important weight management hormones- leptin and ghrelin.  Leptin, a hormone released by fat cells, tells your brain that you are full and have had enough to eat.  Ghrelin is produced in the stomach and does the opposite – it gives your brain signals that you are hungry.  With sleep deprivation, these hormone levels are affected in the way that prompts you to want to eat more – meaning that leptin levels are lowered and ghrelin levels are increased, even though you have had enough to eat.  The reason may be because your body is responding to deprivation of sleep as a stress response. 

     Sleep deprivation and fatigue also can make you more likely to have cravings for unhealthy carbohydrates and excess sweets-such as chips, cookies, pastries and large portions of bread and pasta.  This may be another response by your body to the sense that it needs more energy in one form or the other – and food is the most convenient and reliable option at the time.  This quickly can turn into bad eating habits whether or not you are getting enough sleep.  You may also find that putting the effort into preparing a healthful meal is too demanding because of fatigue, and ordering take out or fast food is more enticing – and surely much higher in calories, sodium and fat.

     Lack of sleep and resulting fatigue also promotes reliance on caffeine sources such as coffee, energy drinks and sodas.  These are often quite high in calories from sugar and/or fats. Fancy coffee drinks can have as much as 600 calories per serving, and 1 can of regular soda may contain the equivalent of 11 cubes of sugar!  And since many of us build up a tolerance to caffeine with regular use, several servings per day of these beverages may contribute many more calories than you may need in a day- quickly leading to excessive weight gain.

     Too tired to exercise?  This is a   common complaint, and may also be related to problems with weight management.  If you are exhausted from lack of quality sleep, motivation to take a morning walk or go to the gym after work will be nonexistent.  As we know how important exercise is for general health and weight management, this issue will become more of a concern as more weight is gained,

     So if you are trying to lose weight, consider your sleep habits and take them into account.  If you are having difficulties with daytime fatigue, restless sleep, nighttime snoring, depression or inability to concentrate, or an excessive intake of caffeine, be sure to discuss these issues with your physician for a plan of treatment.  Sleep difficulties can come from a variety of causes, and to optimize your weight management success, should be properly diagnosed and treated.


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