Can't Shed Those Pounds?

A lack of zzzzs can affect your ability to lose weight

By Michael Breus, PhD, D, ABSM
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Stuart Meyers

To lose weight seems to be the number one resolution each new year. However, nearly 90% of these resolutions meet with either little or no success. Some people even gain weight instead. Most people never know there may be a very simple reason why: They don't sleep well.

Studies published in The Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet suggest that sleep loss may increase hunger and affect the body's metabolism, which may make it more difficult to maintain or lose weight.

Sleep loss appears to do two things:

  1. Makes you feel hungry even if you are full. Sleep loss has been shown to affect the secretion of cortisol, a hormone that regulates appetite. As a result, individuals who lose sleep may continue to feel hungry despite adequate food intake.

  2. Increases fat storage. Sleep loss may interfere with the body's ability to metabolize carbohydrates, which leads to high levels of blood sugar. Excess blood sugar promotes the overproduction of insulin, which can lead to the storage of body fat and insulin resistance, a critical step into the development of diabetes.

Why would an overweight person tend to have sleep problems? There appear to be several reasons why this may occur:

  • Many people who are overweight have sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing starts and stops during sleep, consequently causing numerous awakenings. This may occur hundreds of times a night, without your even knowing it. So you can imagine how sleepy you could feel the next day.
  • Some who are overweight have low back pain, making lying comfortably in bed and getting a good night's sleep difficult.
  • People who are depressed or otherwise worried about their weight may have insomnia, or the inability to fall asleep.

It is also important to realize that the quality of sleep (that is, getting the right amount of "deep sleep") is just as important as the quantity of sleep. For example, decreased amounts of restorative deep or slow-wave sleep have been associated with significantly reduced levels of growth hormone, a protein that helps regulate the body's proportions of fat and muscle during adulthood.

Sleep Tips to Help You Shape Up

Specialists recommend that people who vow to lose weight should adjust their sleep habits as well as their eating habits. The following are useful tips to help shape up.

  • Don't go to bed feeling hungry, but don't eat a big meal right before bedtime.
  • Exercise regularly, but no sooner than three hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol in the late afternoon and evening.
  • If you have trouble sleeping at night, don't nap during the day.
  • Establish relaxing pre-sleep rituals, such as a warm bath or a few minutes of reading.
  • Create a pleasant sleep environment. Make it as dark and quiet as possible.
  • If you can't sleep, don't stay in bed fretting. After 30 minutes, go to another room and involve yourself in a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy.

If you have trouble sleeping for more than a few weeks, or if sleep problems interfere with daily functioning, speak with your doctor.

Published May 2003.


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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 6:09:21 AM