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Snooze more, eat less? Sleep deprivation and weight control

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Research has shown that weight loss is not just about eating less and moving more. Genetics, health conditions, and body type also play a role in how challenging it can be to lose weight. However, certain factors can help set the stage for success.

New research suggests that adults who are well-rested consume fewer calories than those who are chronically sleep-deprived. A study of 80 overweight individuals highlights the importance of getting enough sleep for weight management. Dr. Beth Frates, director of lifestyle medicine and wellness at Massachusetts General Hospital, believes that "working to find ways to clean up sleep hygiene may help people to extend sleep time to the recommended seven to nine hours per night. This could lead to consuming fewer calories and even weight loss in people who are in the overweight category by BMI."

What Studies Tells Us

The study also supports previous findings that link sleep deprivation to consuming more calories and craving high-calorie foods. Dr. Frates notes that around one-third of Americans do not get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night. This shortfall is associated with several chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

"Sleep deprivation affects the levels of hormones that regulate hunger and satiety. Sleep loss alters the production of hormones that regulate hunger and appetite, causing an increase in appetite and a desire for calorie-dense foods. Insufficient sleep is associated with reduced levels of the hormone leptin and elevated levels of the hormone ghrelin."

Dr. Wendy M. Troxel, Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist at the RAND Corporation
Source: Troxel, W. M. (2018). It’s more than sleep apnea: the impact of sleep-related behaviors and disorders on cardiovascular health. The American journal of cardiology, 121(7), 851-862.

Dr. Frates emphasizes that sleep is one of the six pillars of lifestyle medicine, along with exercise, nutritious eating, stress reduction, social connection, and avoiding risky substances. While most people focus on exercise and diet when it comes to weight management and a healthy heart, few focus on sleep.

The recent study has shown that getting enough sleep could be linked to weight loss. The study focused on 80 overweight adults between the ages of 21 to 40 with a BMI between 25.0 and 29.9. The participants all slept less than 6.5 hours each night, which is less than the recommended amount. For the first two weeks, all participants were instructed to maintain their normal sleep habits.

The participants were randomly split into two equal groups for the second two weeks. One group was given individualized counseling aimed at increasing their sleep times to 8.5 hours by identifying sleep-disturbing factors such as bed partner, children, and pets. The second group continued with their usual sleep habits. All participants were told to maintain their daily routines without changing their diet or exercise habits.

The researchers found that participants who received sleep hygiene counseling slept for more than an hour longer each night than those who did not. The extended sleep participants also consumed an average of 270 fewer calories per day and lost about a pound compared to control group participants, who gained just under a pound on average.

How Sleep Can Affect Appetite

Sleeping for longer can also help balance appetite-regulating hormones, as sleep duration has been linked to the production of these hormones. Insufficient sleep is associated with higher levels of the hormone ghrelin, which increases appetite, and lower levels of the hormone leptin, which leads to feeling less full.

However, it is worth noting that the study did not reveal whether the extended sleep pattern was maintained after the two-week intervention period, or what types of food participants ate and when.

If you want to improve your sleep duration, there are a few tactics you can try, including keeping a sleep log, monitoring sleep times with wrist actigraphy devices such as smartwatches, evaluating bedtime routines to tweak factors influencing sleep duration, and limiting the use of electronic devices at least an hour before bed.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise are important for weight management, they are not the only factors to consider. The amount and quality of sleep you get each night can also significantly impact your calorie intake and overall health.

If you're struggling to lose weight despite making changes to your diet and exercise routine, consider evaluating your sleep habits. Are you getting enough sleep each night? Are there factors that are disturbing your sleep, such as a bed partner, children, or pets? By taking steps to improve your sleep hygiene, you may be able to achieve better weight management and improve your overall health and wellbeing.

Remember, sleep is one of the six pillars of lifestyle medicine, and it plays an essential role in our physical and mental health. By prioritizing sleep, we can support our weight management goals and live healthier, more fulfilling lives. So, start by making small changes to your sleep habits today, and see how it can make a big difference in your weight loss journey.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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