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Published on March 30, 2017

Get a Good Night's Sleep to Better Control Your Weight

If you’re hoping to lose a few pounds or stay in shape as you age, you probably watch what you eat and spend some time in the gym. However, if you’re like most people, you’re not paying enough attention to sleep – one of the most important components of maintaining healthy body weight. Sleep is essential in order for the body to rest and repair. Many bodily systems become unbalanced when you are sleep deprived.

“It only takes a small amount of sleep loss for changes to start happening,” said Kristin Noonan, MD, FACS, FASMBS, director of Surgical Quality and Safety at Abington-Jefferson Health. “These changes cause undue and unnecessary stress to the body and brain that lead to weight gain or inhibit efforts at weight loss.”

Sleep, Your Brain, and Your Weight

One of the systems most affected by lack of sleep is the brain. Lack of sleep can lead to problems with memory, reaction time, mood, decision making and judgement.

“It is very difficult to make appropriate food choices when you’re tired, or to force your exhausted body to go to the gym,” said Dr. Noonan. “When you feel bad, your body craves foods high in fat and carbohydrates that boost brain serotonin, a happy chemical that will make you feel better.”

Lack of sleep makes it harder to maintain your motivation and willpower. It stacks the deck against your weight loss and maintenance program before you even get started.

Lack of Sleep Changes Your Hormones, Too

Not getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most fundamental sources of stress. And when you experience stress, your body chemistry changes. Hormones that help you maintain your body weight – cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin – can be knocked out of balance.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone normally produced and released from the adrenal glands in varying levels throughout the day. Stress and low blood sugar increase cortisol levels and may change the usual timing of its release.

“This can lead to weakening of the immune system, impaired wound healing, and higher blood sugars,” said Dr. Noonan. “The perception by the brain that bodily resources are being strained leads to a decrease in our metabolic rate and increased storage of metabolic resources – or energy – as fat.”

Leptin is a hormone produced by adipose, or fat, cells. It travels to the brain to reduce hunger and make you feel full. Leptin levels drop when you are sleep deprived.

“Interestingly, since obese people have higher levels of fat cells, higher levels of leptin are seen in their blood,” said Dr. Noonan. “However, the brain becomes less sensitive to leptin as these levels rise, despite the presence of plentiful energy resources. This resistance to the effects of leptin allows ongoing feelings of hunger, which makes dietary control and weight loss more difficult.”

Ghrelin is a hormone related to hunger released by resting stomach cells. When food fills the stomach, the cells are stretched and ghrelin release stops. Not getting enough sleep causes increased levels of ghrelin, which makes you feel hungrier than you should be.

The combination of all of these hormonal changes can biochemically sabotage the most rigorous efforts at weight loss.

Create a Strategy for a Good Night’s Sleep

When you understand the negative effects of inadequate sleep in the body and mind, it should encourage you to make sleep a priority. You can do this by creating a plan for developing good sleep behaviors, which should include:

  • Avoiding blue light (TV, phone, computer) before bed
  • Reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption
  • Creating sleep rituals – behaviors that tell your body it’s time for sleep
  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day

If you struggle with repeated nighttime wakening, morning headaches and sore throat, extreme daytime sleepiness, and snoring, talk to your doctor about being tested for a sleep disorder. Proper diagnosis and treatment can help break the vicious cycle of sleep loss and weight gain.

To see a sleep specialist at Abington – Jefferson Health, call 215-481-2226.

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