Sleep is an important lifestyle factor that often gets overlooked. This article will explore how sleep (and lack thereof) can affect our biological processes, and will review strategies to gain better sleep habits.
The Importance of Sleep
Getting enough sleep appears to be a pretty important factor in maintaining good health.
According to the CDC, poor sleep is defined as less than seven hours per night. And research shows that regularly losing sleep is linked with many chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
How does sleep affect our health?
Our bodies work pretty hard while we sleep. Many important regulatory processes occur during normal sleeping hours.
One of these processes is to produce hormones that control our appetite, called ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is the hormone that helps indicate hunger, and leptin is responsible for indicating fullness. When sleep is interrupted or cut short, our ghrelin levels go up and our leptin levels go down.
Ever feel ravenously hungry after a night of bad sleep, even if you’ve been properly nourished? Could be because of those hormone shifts!
Our bodies also produce more cortisol and insulin when we are sleep deprived. Cortisol is our stress hormone, and insulin regulates glucose processing and promotes fat storage. These increases can affect our mood and ability to cope with stress. Consistent lack of sleep could contribute to eating for distraction or to cope.
Increased Cravings for Nutrient-Poor Foods
A lack of sleep seems to make us crave more high-fat, high-calorie foods.
One study looked at food choices made by a group of adults when they were well rested, and then again when they had lack of sleep. They found that when the group slept eight or more hours, they chose a balanced diet with more nutrient-dense foods, like fruits and vegetables, during the day, like fruits and vegetables. But when they were sleep deprived, they chose foods like burgers, pizza and donuts.
Irregular Eating Behaviors
Less hours spent sleeping and more hours awake also allows most time to eat during the day.
Some studies indicate that short sleepers have less consistent eating patterns. They may skip meals more frequently and overeat at other meals. Or, they may snack more often between meals. Research indicates that under-rested folks report more snacking during the evening and night hours.
It seems as energy levels go down later in the day, quick energy foods like sweets may seem more appealing.
Strategies for Better Sleep
Given what we know, sleep seems to have at least a small role in managing body weight. If you feel improving sleep may be useful for you and your goals, here are some tips for better slumber:
- Limit caffeine intake after mid-day. Caffeine is a stimulant, and it’s present in coffee, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate. Try to consume very little, if any, within 6 hours of bedtime.
- Try not to eat large meals or snacks prior to bedtime. This may not always be possible, and that’s ok. But be aware that this practice can cause sleep interruption due to indigestion or acid reflux.
- If you do eat close to bedtime, choose carefully. Sweets, desserts and sugary beverages could cause a spike in your blood sugar, causing you to have trouble falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night. You may also want to avoid fried foods like french fries and potato chips as these could cause indigestion or reflux.
- Aim to build a consistent sleep schedule. Sticking to normal bedtimes, and establishing a relaxing routine prior to bedtime, can help you ease into a restful state naturally.
- Find enjoyable movement each day. Even just ten minutes of activity, like walking or stretching, can reduce tension and promote better quality sleep.
- Limit alcohol intake. Drinking alcohol can increase sleep interrupting symptoms like snoring and sleep apnea, and can break up your body’s natural sleep rhythm. If you do want to have a drink, try to do it 3 hours before bedtime so the effects can wear off before you go to bed.
- Talk to your doctor to determine if you have any undiagnosed sleep disorders, and get you on the right path to sleeping better.
When aiming for weight loss and weight management, sleep is just one factor that should be considered. Managing your sleep better may help assist in weight loss goals, especially if you struggle to get good sleep consistently. Most important, adequate sleep can lead to better health outcomes long-term.
Be sure to discuss your sleep habits and weight loss goals with a medical professional before beginning any treatment plans. I highly recommend working with a dietitian who can also look at other nutritional and lifestyle factors.
Hopefully this gives you something to sleep on!
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- Greer, S. M., Goldstein, An.N., Walker, M.P. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature communications, 2013: 4, 2259.
- Dashti, H. et. al. Short sleep duration and dietary intake: epidemiologic evidence, mechanisms, and health implications. Advanced Nutrition, 2015: 6, 648-59. doi: 10.3945/an.115.008623.
- University of California, Berkeley. Sleep deprivation linked to junk food cravings. ScienceDaily, 6 August 2013.
- Frank, S, et. al. Diet and sleep physiology: public health and clinical implications. Frontiers in Neurology, 2013. https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2017.00393
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/index.html