Sleep Deprivation and Obesity

It’s drilled into our heads, “exercise and eat right.” You have probably heard this advice on losing weight. But just as exercise and a good diet are needed for a healthy waistline, sleep may be just as important and too many of us do not get enough.

Obesity has become an epidemic in America. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK), 1 in 3 adults are obese and 2 in 3 are overweight. This increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and certain types of cancer. Even children are developing type 2 diabetes under the age of 10, and this is usually diagnosed later in adulthood.

Why are we as Americans struggling with weight gain? One reason may be that our schedules have become busy. We work, have school, and social lives keeping us up late and skipping out on a full night’s sleep. Many Americans get less than the required 7-8 hours a night that we need, and this lack of sleep can play a role in weight gain for several reasons.

Ghrelin and leptin are hormones produced by the body and are responsible for controlling when we want to eat and stop eating. Ghrelin tells us when we want to eat. When we’re sleep deprived we produce more ghrelin, causing us to eat more. Leptin tells us when to stop eating, and when we are sleep deprived we have less of it in our bodies. This increased ghrelin and decreased leptin along with the slower metabolism we have while sleep deprived, leads to weight gain.

Poor food and exercise choices are other contributing factors to weight gain. When we feel sleepy, we tend to grab a sugar-filled snack or a cup (or several cups) of coffee. We’re tired so we skip the exercise and don’t want to cook so we may get take-out. By the time bedtime comes, we are too wound up for sleep. This cycle can continue and lead to weight gain and other health problems.

Cortisol, which is known as a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands, can keep us from weight loss when levels remain too high. Cortisol is designed to help us “fight” or escape danger by raising our blood sugar to feed our muscles. It also elevates blood pressure and regulates immune function. Because getting enough sleep helps lower cortisol levels, missing out on sleep keeps levels of cortisol elevated, which can lead to weight gain.

Growth hormones are secreted by the pituitary gland and stimulate cell regeneration, reproduction, growth, and also aid in building muscle. The level of growth hormones is higher during sleep, and higher levels increase metabolism. Therefore, if we don’t get adequate sleep, growth hormone levels are lower and it may be harder to lose weight.

Sleep deprivation may also lead to insulin resistance, which causes your body to not use insulin properly, and blood sugar levels rise. This is a predecessor for type 2 diabetes and this pre-diabetic state may lead to weight gain.

Adults need 7-8 hours of sleep a night, and getting this amount can keep you from gaining weight or even help you lose extra pounds. If you’re having trouble getting to sleep, try avoiding caffeine in the afternoon. Exercise routinely, but not in the hours before bedtime. Watch what you eat before bed; don’t eat heavy meals. Keep meals light and small. If you still struggle to sleep or think you may have a sleep disorder, your physician can help you come up with a plan to diagnose and treat the problem.

Kristina Diaz, RRT  is a Registered Respiratory Therapist and a health and wellness enthusiast and writer.

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