6 Ways Sleep Can Help You Lose Weight
Updated: Jul 10
It’s not always easy, and never guaranteed, to get a good night’s sleep as a parent but getting quality sleep might just be one of the things on which you should focus if you’re trying to lose weight.
If you’re a parent, you’re either at the point where sleep is an enigma - something you desire so bad you can taste it – or it’s a luxury your body just won’t allow you to indulge in any more. Either way, we know how crucial sleep is to our physical and mental health. Sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, clearance of brain metabolites, and restoration of nervous, immune, skeletal, and muscular systems.
Despite this knowledge the CDC reports that 1/3 of Americans get less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep per night to maintain optimal health. Even worse, 2/3 of teenagers get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep of school nights thought to increase concentration and prevent depression and motor vehicle accidents.
There’s also quite a bit of research to show that lack of sleep, even a deficit of a few hours each night, can be harmful to your weight loss efforts.
How much sleep is enough sleep?
According to the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations:
The National Sleep Foundation's recommended amount of sleep per age group.
Newborns 0–3 months 14–17 hours
Infants 4–11 months 12–15 hours
Toddlers 1-2 years 11–14 hours
Preschoolers 3–5 years 10–13 hours
School-age Children 6–13 years 9–11 hours
Teenagers 14–17 years 8–10 hours
Younger adults 18–25 years 7–9 hours
Adults 26–64 years 7–9 hours
Older adults 65+ years 7-8 hours
You can’t go wrong by getting enough shut eye, but here are some facts and research on the connection between sleep and weight loss.
How lack of sleep prevents you from losing weight:
1. Lack of sleep inhibits the use of your rational brain – so you choose to eat more junk
A deficit of just a few hours of sleep per night (1-3 hours for example), prevents the rational part of the brain from working at maximum capacity. When you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep, it’s much easier to make the conscious decision to eat healthful foods. But sleep deprivation makes that neurological system of rewards and motivation work less efficiently. You’re more apt to choose foods higher in fat and carbohydrates. You seek more rewards that make your brain light up and release the feel-good hormones.
2. Loss of sleep causes you to eat more total calories
Lack of sleep alters appetite regulation. In one study, 14 women (8 normal weight and 6 overweight and obese women) all completed 2 days of 9 hours of sleep per night; 4 days of 5.5 hours of sleep; and 2 days of 9.3 hours of sleep. Their food records revealed an increase of 20% (or about 415) calories per day during the period of restricted sleep.
Other studies have found an increase in anywhere from 300-559 extra calories per day in sleep deficient study participants.
3. Sleep loss may decrease energy expenditure
So, not only does the research show that a lack of sleep can cause you to eat more calories in a day and eat more unhealthy fats and carbs, but lack of sleep may decrease the number of calories you burn at rest. In other words, lack of sleep may decrease your resting metabolic rate.
There have been conflicting results regarding this. Buxton and colleagues performed 2 studies. In the first, the researchers found that restricting sleep to 5 hours per night over 7 nights had no effect on energy expenditure. Another study of theirs found that restricting sleep to 6.5 hours per 28 hours (while extending the day to a 28-hour day) decreased resting metabolic rate by 8% compared to their baseline participants. (This induced both sleep restriction and circadian disruption.)
Another explanation as to how sleep deprivation decreases energy expenditure is through altering our thermoregulation and through fatigue.
4. Lack of sleep may just give us more opportunity to eat
Longer waking hours are, naturally, going to be associated with more eating. And, often, foods chosen to eat in the middle of the night are not consumed out of hunger, but out of boredom or in response to another emotional desire.
5. Lack of sleep may decrease insulin sensitivity
Insulin insensitivity is a hallmark of type 2 diabetes and it can creep up silently for years until there’s a problem. In the case of type 2 diabetes, one would have increased blood sugar and increased blood insulin levels. Insulin can promote weight gain, so we don’t want excess insulin floating around.
In one study, 15 healthy, non-obese young adults had their insulin and glucagon checked after undergoing a sleep restriction and habitual sleep (5 hours vs. 7 hours, respectively). When they lacked sleep, the participants had high fasting insulin levels and glucagon levels (the hormone that signals your body to release more glucose into your blood).
There are other studies that show that sleep deprivation from 1 night to a few nights, all the way to complete deprivation, had negative effects on glucose metabolism and whole body increased blood sugar.
6. Sleep loss may make you hungrier and retain more body fat
In one study, overweight middle-aged adults were assigned to sleep 5.5 hours per night over 2 weeks and consumed ~90% of the normal amount of calories that they usually eat.
This sleep deprivation coupled with less calories per day was associated with increased ghrelin, which is the hormone responsible for making us feel hungry. It also decreased the hormone leptin, which is the hormone responsible for signaling that we’re full after a meal. To make matters worse, lack of sleep appeared to promote retention of fat (made it harder to burn off fat mass).
The takeaway – if you’re trying to lose weight, or even maintain your weight, sleep should be on your list of priorities at some point. It’s an important part of self-care that you shouldn’t ignore. Getting adequate shut eye will help to make conscious, healthy decisions around food and exercise, give you energy to exercise and keep your hormones in check. When those hormones are altered, it’s the perfect storm for your body to hold on to its fat mass and prevent you from burning it off.
Some tips on how to get more sleep and sleep better:
Reduce screen time before bed
Reserve your bedroom for sleep and sex only (don’t watch TV or work in your bedroom if you can help it)
Don’t eat within 1 hour of sleep
Allow some wind down time at night before bed
Keep to a schedule of sleep and wake every night, including weekends
Limit alcohol consumption, as it interferes with sleep
Don’t toss and turn! After 20 minutes of being awake, get up, leave the bed and read something really boring, like a car manual, not an electronic screen.
Keep a notepad by your bed to jot down those thoughts that pop up in the middle of the night and, inevitably, keep you awake. Do this brain dump before bed, as well, if you have a lot on your mind.
Try sleeping somewhere else. Are you someone that can sleep better in a hotel, or another bed, than your own? You’ve psyched yourself out of sleeping in your bed. Try the couch. You can even try sleeping with your head at the food of your bed. Try it, you’ll be surprised.
Try a white noise machine or really noisy fan if you’re a light sleeper and noises wake you up.
If you’re interested in learning how my Busy Mamma Weight Loss Bootcampers go through my system of transformation around food, exercise, stress and unhealthy habits, email me to set up a time to talk.
Dolezal BA, Neufeld EV, Boland DM, Martin JL, Cooper CB. Interrelationship between Sleep and Exercise: A Systematic Review [published correction appears in Adv Prev Med. 2017;2017:5979510]. Adv Prev Med. 2017;2017:1364387. doi:10.1155/2017/1364387
St-Onge MP. The role of sleep duration in the regulation of energy balance: effects on energy intakes and expenditure. J Clin Sleep Med. 2013;9(1):73-80. Published 2013 Jan 15. doi:10.5664/jcsm.2348
Patel, S.R. and Hu, F.B. (2008), Short Sleep Duration and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review. Obesity, 16: 643-653. doi:10.1038/oby.2007.118
Nedeltcheva AV, Kilkus JM, Imperial J, Schoeller DA, Penev PD. Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity. Ann Intern Med. 2010;153(7):435-441. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-153-7-201010050-00006
Kline CE. The bidirectional relationship between exercise and sleep: Implications for exercise adherence and sleep improvement. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2014;8(6):375-379. doi:10.1177/1559827614544437
Wang X, Greer J, Porter RR, Kaur K, Youngstedt SD. Short-Term Moderate Sleep Restriction Decreases Insulin Sensitivity in Young Healthy Adults. Sleep Health. 2016;2(1):63-68. doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2015.11.004