Want to Lose Weight? Get Some Sleep

Getting enough shuteye can help you get slim

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

You want to lose a few pounds. You're cutting your calories, watching your fat grams, working out more. All well and good. But have you also considered going to sleep? Probably not, but sleep researchers are now saying that if you want to lose weight, getting some more shuteye may be just what you need.

"Sleep loss is associated with striking alterations in hormone levels that regulate the appetite and may be a contributing factor to obesity," says Michael Thorpy, MD, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. "Anyone making a commitment to lose weight should probably consider a parallel commitment to getting more sleep."

Recently there have been a series of studies showing a relationship between sleep loss and increased weight.

In January 2005, researchers reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine that total sleep time tended to decrease as body weight increased. The difference in total sleep time between normal and overweight people was only 16 minutes per day.

Two 2004 studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that sleeping four to five hours a night causes hormone changes that lead to an increase in hunger. Another study presented at an obesity conference in November 2004 showed that obese people were more likely to sleep less than seven hours a night.

Sleep Affects Hormones

The body's hormones have a 24-hour rhythm, says Joyce Walsleben, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorder Center at the New York University School of Medicine, and author of A Woman's Guide to Sleep: Guaranteed Solutions for a Good Night's Rest. "When you disrupt sleep, you disrupt your hormones," she says. "You become glucose intolerant, you want to eat more, and you don't metabolize what you eat as well."

This hormonal disruption can lead not only to weight gain, Walsleben says, but also to an increased risk of developing diabetes.

"When we're young, we think we can get by on little -- or even no -- sleep at all," says Walsleben. "That's just not true. We all have to plan our life around getting enough sleep."

There are 10 main reasons why you may not be sleeping well, says Walsleben:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • Illness
  • Noise
  • Light
  • An over committed schedule
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Stimulant medications (such as diet pills, cold and allergy remedies, asthma medications)
  • Depression or anger
  • Fear

To get a better night's sleep, you need to strengthen your natural sleep patterns, says Walsleben, who suggests the "Four Rs of Sleep," so named by Joan Shaver, PhD, RN, professor and dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Regularize your sleep-wake patterns. Get up at the same time every day, says Walsleben. If you wake up at 7 a.m. during the week, don't sleep in on weekend mornings. Avoid naps, unless you usually take one. Try to get the same amount of sleep every night. Some people need nine hours of sleep every night; some are fine with less. Find out what works for you and then stick to it.

Ritualize your cues for good sleep. Use the bedroom only for sleep and sex, says Walsleben. Keep the room quiet, dark, and cool. Go to bed only when you're sleepy.

Relax. On the left side of a notebook page, list the issues that are running through your mind; on the right side, list actions you can take to resolve those issues. Are you worried about money? Write that down on the left. On the right, make a list of ways you can ease those worries -- postpone your vacation, call a financial planner, file a tax extension, cut up your credit cards.

Resist temptation. That includes alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, all of which can interfere with sleep, says Walsleben.

Energy and wellness coach Pamela Smith, RD, author of The Energy Edge and Take Charge of the Change, offers these additional suggestions:

Tame the night sweats. If you're approaching menopause, night sweats and hot flashes can really disrupt your sleep. Stabilizing your body chemistries with foods that include phytoestrogens from soy products and flaxseed can help regulate your hormones, which, in turn, will ease the sweats and flashes and let you sleep better. You may need to speak with your doctor about evaluating your hormone status.

Skip the sugar. High-sugar and high-fat snacks may make you feel drowsy, but when your blood sugar falls a few hours later, you'll wake up hungry and won't be able to get back to sleep. Going to bed hungry isn't the answer, either. If you haven't had enough to eat, your brain will stay alert until you feed it. Good bedtime snacks, says Smith, include a small bowl of whole grain cereal with low-fat milk, half a turkey sandwich, or a banana with skim milk. All of these combine protein and complex carbohydrates to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the night.

Get moving. Take a walk, ride a bike, or swim for 30 to 40 minutes a day, four times a week. Exercise will help you fall asleep faster and sleep longer than if you don't exercise at all, says Smith. And by increasing your endorphins -- your brain's "feel good" chemicals -- you'll be better able to deal with the stress that may keep you from getting a good night's sleep. (Just make sure, says Walsleben, that you avoid strenuous exercise within three hours of bedtime, or you'll be too energized to get to sleep.)

Turn over. If you sleep on your stomach, you can end up with back and neck strain that might be painful enough to disrupt your sleep, says Smith. Sleeping on your side can also help you breathe more easily, reducing snoring that can awaken you during the night. For the best sleep posture, put a pillow under your knees to comfortably support your lower spine. To avoid neck and shoulder aches, use a pillow that is thin enough to support your head without flexing your neck (foam pillows are sometimes too springy; down pillows work best). Make sure you're warm enough (if you stay curled up all night to conserve heat, your back may get sore), and give yourself enough room to move (staying in one position for too long can leave you feeling stiff in the morning).

Don't try too hard. If you're still not asleep after being in bed for a half-hour, says Smith, get up and do something that will calm you -- such as reading -- until you feel drowsy. Try to stay awake until your eyes start to close involuntarily. Don't look at the clock -- the more you focus on not sleeping, the less likely you are to sleep.

Originally published March 10, 2003.

Medically updated Feb. 18, 2005.


SOURCES: WebMD Medical News: "Less Sleep Could Mean More Weight." WebMD Medical News: "Sleep Loss Feeds Appetite." WebMD Medical News: "Sleep More to Fight Obesity." Michael Thorpy, MD, director, Sleep-Wake Disorders Center, Montefiore Medical Center, New York. Joyce A. Walsleben, PhD, Dipl ABSM, research associate professor, director, Sleep Disorder Center, New York University School of Medicine.Pamela Smith, RD.


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