Can Sleep Loss Add to Weight Gain?

Although I haven’t spoken a lot about sleep here, it is something that is absolutely essential when it comes to good health. Like the Standard American Diet, which leads to so many medical issues, sleep deprivation and sleeping problems can be equally detrimental to your well-being.

I’m regularly focused on getting enough sleep, it’s a key part of my health program. In fact, in healing the autoimmune conditions with which I’ve been diagnosed, sleep is as critical for me as eating the proper foods. Sleep, is in fact, a form of nourishment, and strangely enough, I recently read an article in the New York Times in which I learned that sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain.

How is that possible? According to the New York Times:

Losing sleep tends to make people eat more and gain weight, and now a new study suggests that one reason may be the impact that sleep deprivation has on the brain…The research showed that depriving people of sleep for one night created pronounced changes in the way their brains responded to high-calorie junk foods. On days when the subjects had not had proper sleep, fattening foods like potato chips and sweets stimulated stronger responses in a part of the brain that helps govern the motivation to eat. But at the same time, the subjects experienced a sharp reduction in activity in the frontal cortex, a higher-level part of the brain where consequences are weighed and rational decisions are made.

Apparently, sleep deprivation is double trouble for the brain –it causes one part of the brain to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods, while lowering the executive function in the part of the brain that helps with impulse control. The New York Times article further states:

Large population studies show that both adults and children are more likely to be overweight and obese the less they sleep at night.

One study in my academic backyard, The University of Colorado, showed that people who lose just a few hours of sleep a few nights in a row gain an average of approximately two pounds. Why? When sleep deprivation occurs, stress hormones (think cortisol) rise, as does inflammation. Further, hormones that stimulate appetite increase, while hormones that blunt it drop. Insulin resistance increases as well.

Can Sleep Loss Add to Weight Gain? I think it is safe to say that sleep is a good thing all around. Still, I find it compelling that sleep is also critical when it comes to getting into shape and staying fit. That’s why when it comes to fitness, I’ve regularly made a habit of choosing sleep over exercise –ideally, I want both. But when it comes down to it, I’ll take sleep over exercise any day.

So, go ahead and get yourself a good night’s sleep. Get as much as you can, and don’t feel guilty about sleeping ever again! It’s good for you in more ways than you’ll ever know.


21 responses to “Can Sleep Loss Add to Weight Gain?”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Elana.

    The physical and mental ill effects of sleep deprivation, experienced in the few years after my son was born, left me in no doubt as to how important it is for me to sleep well. I’ve been an avid reader of any research on sleep ever since.

    A recent finding on sleep’s potential to reduce dementia risk was less publicized than the weight gain connection but just as interesting. Forbes’ reportage on the research was particularly good. Please find below story’s opening sentence and a link to the piece:

    “When you sleep, your brain undergoes a mop-up process that removes waste products linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to new research published yesterday in the online version of Science.”

  2. I have major depression and obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep is a major problem in my life. My grandmother died about a year and a half ago. I have not had a consistent week of normal sleep since she died. I am sleeping but not when I want to. So of course I am not waking up when I want to. It has wrecked my schedule. I know that part of it is grief and depression but my sleep apnea plays a big role. I have gained about 50 pounds since she died and I know it affects my sleep in a negative way. I am constantly waking up without my c-pap mask on my face (which is a major no! no!)Recently I found out I have some other medical reasons for the extreme fatigue that I feel. Up until now I was blaming it on my depression, sleep apnea, diabetes,slow thyroid, and anemia. I keep looking for natural ways to help get a good nights sleep. I am taking Melatonin but nothing has been able to get my sleep pattern back to normal. I would appreciate any information or insight anyone has.

    • @ Nicole Try the magnesium I like the Natural Vitality brand it’s a powder it works in my body in 20 minutes. I worked for a doctor we couldn’t keep it on the shelves it sold that good. I have turned many of my friend on to this product. Also I had a mouth piece made for my sleep apnea. I HAD HEARD it was a vitamin D deficiency? Look into that. Sorry for your loss :( I followed a diet of strict gluten free with no rice or corn in it either. Along with my food allergies of soy. Good luck.

  3. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I went thru menopause. I am now 70. I have all the classic issues: I have trouble falling asleep initially, I wake up often during the night, usually to pee, as many as 4 or 5 times and I awaken way too early in the morning. On average I probably get about 5 hours of sleep a night, often less. I take 15 mgs of melatonin a night but it’s having less and less effect. Thanks for your article.

    • I use Natural Vitality’s Magnesium. It helps with Fibro pain, sleeping problems, RLS, ….and many of us are deficient in it. I also heard that if you crave chocolate is your deficient in it. My one doctor was finding her patients were getting pregnant and she put it to the melatonin. She told me women that have jaws (Bull Dog face) is a magnesium deficiency. It seems that when I am good about taking it my face muscles do look better?

  4. Funny, I saw your email at 3:00 am when I woke up and couldn’t sleep anymore. But I do go to bed early! I also found something interesting: if I wake up in the middle of the night and weigh myself, then drink 2 glasses of water, go back to sleep and weigh myself when I wake up, I’ll be one pound less!!!!

  5. Also, I see no one mentioned the fact that the hormones that balance our metabolism weren’t mentioned. You did mention CORTISOL, but the others are GHRELIN and LEPTIN. If you don’t get to sleep by about 11 each night, you won’t be sleeping at the time these hormones are typically regulated. We really do screw ourselves up in countless ways when we don’t sleep long enough or at the right time. I’m SO pathetically guilty of this *sigh*

  6. Elana, over the past year or two I’ve read many articles on this, and it’s very clear sleep matters in SO many ways. It’s actually my biggest downfall, that I’ve been a night owl since I was a teen (I’m almost 56). I know it’s impacted my health (I have lots of health issues), but it’s hard to say how much of it is due to this. I KNOW I need to get to bed early, yet with too few hours in the day to do so much, I can’t get myself to do it. SOMEhow I must. Thanks for another reminder!

  7. Elana, thanks a lot for sharing this info!!! I would love to add also is the fact that when I am sleep deprived, my will for staying away of bad foods goes completely away!!!

    Thanks for the article.

    Kind regards, Josh

  8. This is incredible news. I a skinny child, I wondered why I was putting on so much weight after my first child was born. And after five children were born, there seemed to be no going back to a healthy weight, even though my diet was a balanced one and not full of junk food. Three years ago, i discovered my gluten intolerance and now this post, Elana, sheds so much more light on what is needed. I am not getting adequate sleep, even now. Thank you so much for this. I am going to sit down with my schedule and figure out how I am going to make sure this lack of sleep doesn’t continue.

    This might also explain why exercising, which at various periods in my life I have done religiously but with little results in my overall weight. Even with muscle being heavier than fat, it still didn’t explain the inability to drop a single pound. Stress may be a significant factor in this as well as sleep. And then of course then I didn’t know about my gluten intolerance and was eating wheat.

    It takes time to put together all of the pieces. And because I really don’t have any other health problems, my doctors only say the same thing – eat less and exercise more. It appears to be much more complicated than that for some.

    Blessings to you for writing this Elana.

  9. Well I haven’t slept through the night in more than ten years (up dealing with a child’s medical issues nightly) and this seems like a no-brained to me. Less sleep means weight gain or at least stagnant weight loss. When my dd was a baby she went through a period of months when she was up almost hourly at night and I found that I really craved chocolate during that period. My body felt starved for it.

  10. I have had fibromyalgia for as long as I can remember but it started getting bad back about 15 years ago. chronic fatigue also set in. I was never a good sleeper but the fibro made it almost impossible to sleep more than a few hours at a time. that does not make for good restorative sleep. I gained about 20-25 pounds over the first few years and have never been able to get rid of it. I am even a vegetarian and am careful to eat mostly organic and non-processed foods. aside from the fibro, I am quite healthy for my age(65)and am as active as I can be. the weight gain causes more pain and mobility issues but nothing has even helped. just the thought of sleeping more than 2-3 hours at a time would be wonderful.

    • Maggi – I feel you. I also have fibro, and between pain and fatigue, I think fatigue is the worse to deal with. It’s an ongoing battle, so enjoy your small victories. Gentle hugs your way!

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