Why Is Sleep Important for Weight Loss?

Learn How to Get Better Sleep to Lose Weight

sleeping woman
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Weight loss can be an uphill battle. And if you aren't getting a good night's sleep, the challenge may even greater. When you are exhausted from lack of sleep, you're not likely to have the energy to exercise or prepare healthy food. Lack of sleep can also mess with your hormonal balance.

Researchers are also finding that not sleeping enough or not sleeping well can not only make weight loss harder, but it may increase your risk of obesity, and make healthy weight maintenance harder. So how do you sleep better to get the essential rest that you need? There are simple ways to sleep better at night and maybe even slim down more effectively. 

Sleep and Weight Loss

There are several different ways that poor sleep or lack of sleep can play a role in reaching or maintaining a healthy weight. When you understand the powerful impact that sleep can have, you may feel inspired to set up and honor a new bedtime ritual.

May Promote Unhealthy Food Choices

Research suggests that sleep can play a key role in our ability to make better food choices. In fact, it may make mindful eating more challenging. Mindful eating refers to a practice of thoughtful observation and judgement-free awareness when choosing and eating food. It helps some people to reach their healthy weight loss goals.

But some studies have shown that when we are sleep-deprived there are changes in the brain that lead us to change the way we relate to and choose food. Authors of a 2014 study found that when study participants were sleep deprived they reported no changes in hunger, but imaging studies found neural changes that were significant.

Specifically, there were changes to a region of the brain involved in appetite choice, evaluation, and regulation. Both food desire and food awareness increased under the sleep-deprived condition. In addition, desire for larger quantities of high-calorie, weight-gain promoting foods also increased.

Other studies have evaluated sleep restriction (about 4 hours of sleep) and our relationship to food. Authors of a study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that when a small group (25 normal-weight men and women) slept only four hours they showed increased neural activity in response to unhealthy food. Theses neural changes were not present when they got plenty of sleep.

Study authors said that the findings suggest a greater propensity to succumb to unhealthy foods when sleep is restricted. They also pointed to earlier research showing that restricted sleep leads to increased food consumption in healthy people, and that a self-reported desire for sweet and salty food increases after a period of sleep deprivation.

Changes Hunger Hormone Balance

Lack of sleep can also mess with your hormones. The reason revolves around a hormone called ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone that is produced by the stomach when it is empty. Ghrelin travels through the bloodstream to the brain where it stimulates neurons in the hypothalamus to signal hunger. For this reason, ghrelin is often called the "hunger hormone."

In 2010, research presented at the annual meeting of The Endocrine Society suggested that when people have higher levels of ghrelin, they were more likely to crave sweets and junk food. Lead scientist Tony Goldstone, MD, Ph.D., suggested that if we could find a drug to block ghrelin, we may be able to reduce cravings for high-calorie foods and help people lose weight.

Another study published in Obesity Reviews found that catching a few zzz's might be just as effective at reducing ghrelin levels. Researchers from Louisiana State University found that stress management techniques like sleeping and exercising help to reduce both ghrelin levels and the cravings that come with them.

Unfortunately, researchers have not yet found that a ghrelin-blocking drug that is effective for changing eating behavior. So sleep may be the best approach to managing the hunger hormone.

Increases Fatigue, Decreases Healthy Activity

In addition to complex hormone shifts and neural changes, there are very basic ways that poor sleep or lack of sleep can impact your efforts to lose weight. Simply put, when you're tired, you're probably less likely to put effort into exercise and healthy meal planning.

Experts suggest that when you're trying to lose weight that you get up to 300 minutes or more of moderate physical activity each week. That's about 45 minutes per day—every day. Experts also know that eating heavily processed convenience foods are linked to weight gain.

But preparing nutritious meals and increasing physical activity takes mental and physical energy. Getting enough rest each night can help to prepare your body and mind for these important efforts.

How to Sleep Better

Some weight loss and fitness experts have begun to include sleep tips when they advise their clients about healthy lifestyle changes. "When I tell women that they are going to eat less when they sleep more, their ears perk up!" says Chris Freytag. Freytag is a nationally recognized health and wellness expert with more than 20 years of experience in the industry. 

Chris explains that we can recharge our human battery in one of three ways: by exercising, by eating, or by sleeping. If we don't get a good night's sleep, she says, we are likely to refuel by eating too much. So how we do improve the quality of our sleep? Chris offers these helpful tips to sleep better, refuel and recharge.

Evaluate Your Environment

If you can't afford to get a full eight hours of sleep at night, don't despair. Both sleep quality and sleep quantity play a role in your health. "Just because you are laying down for eight hours doesn't mean that you are sleeping for eight hours," says Chris. Her advice for better quality sleep includes making a few simple changes to your environment.

  • Don't charge electronic accessories next to your bed as they create a subliminal distraction.
  • Invest in a high-quality mattress to achieve the best sleeping posture.
  • Minimize distractions, such as light or noise from a television.

Skip the Late Night Snack

If you find yourself craving a late night snack, Chris suggests trying to skip it and to refuel by sleeping instead. She explains that when our bodies aren't recharging through sleep, we look for energy in another form: food! "People tend to overeat when they are tired," she says.

But if you really need a small snack before bed, she recommends passing up the typical chocolate treat and eating a complex carbohydrate like oatmeal or a piece of toast. These foods will keep you satisfied for a longer period of time.

Respect Your Own Sleep Habits

Work within your own guidelines to recharge your human battery. This might mean adjusting your daily habits. For example, some people find that exercising late at night is disruptive to a good night's sleep. But for others, an early morning workout isn't tolerable. The key, says Chris, is working within your lifestyle to find what works.

By learning to sleep well, you may gain the energy you need to invest in other aspects of your health. And you may find that your appetite for more nutritious foods and healthy activity increases as well.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • C. E., Greenway, F. L. and Brantley, P. J. (2011), Lifestyle factors and ghrelin: critical review and implications for weight loss maintenance. Obesity Reviews, July 2010