The surprising connection between sleep and weight management

sleep and weight

When you’re trying to manage your weight, your first focus is likely on what you eat. It’s true that weight management requires a focus on healthy foods and limited intake of sugary, high-calorie, high-fat foods.

Exercise can also be an important tool. Staying physically active helps you burn more calories. It can also help ensure that you maintain muscle.

But there’s a third factor that can be key to weight management, and it’s often overlooked. Turns out that how well you sleep plays an important role. Sleep affects many of your body’s functions. And that, in turn, impacts your motivation, your blood sugar levels and your food choices.

How too little sleep impacts your weight

Not getting enough sleep is linked to higher rates of obesity. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep most nights. People who consistently log six or fewer hours tend to have a higher body mass index (BMI). And even just a few nights of short sleep can result in short-term weight fluctuations.

Not getting enough sleep can also increase your glucose (blood sugar) levels. That raises your risk of Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

And while it may seem obvious, a lack of sleep leaves you feeling tired. That lack of energy can make you less inclined to be active or get any type of exercise. When not sleeping means more time on the couch and less time at the gym, you may find yourself struggling to maintain your weight.

How sleep impacts your appetite

Sleep quality affects two important hormones that regulate appetite — leptin and ghrelin.

Leptin is often called the “satiety hormone” because it’s the one that signals your body to feel full after a meal. Ghrelin has the opposite effect. It stimulates your appetite and makes you feel hungry.

When you consistently get a good night’s sleep, your body regulates these two hormones and makes sure they stay in the proper balance. But when you are chronically sleep deprived, leptin levels decrease and ghrelin levels increase. The result: You feel hungrier before a meal and less satisfied afterward — which can lead to junk food cravings and overeating.

How sleep affects food cravings

In addition to changes in hormones that impact how much you eat, sleep deprivation can also affect what you eat. Experts don’t know exactly why not getting enough sleep makes you turn to less healthy food, but there are some possible explanations.

One theory is that when you’re tired you simply have less energy to devote to healthy eating. You may not feel like taking the time and effort to shop for and prepare nutritious meals. Or you may have less willpower to drive past the bakery or fast-food place without stopping for a high-calorie treat.

Some recent research has found a connection between sleep and the chemicals that make up the reward system in the brain. When you’re sleep-deprived, you may crave foods that feed into that reward system.

Tips for better sleep

Consistent lack of sleep can lead to conditions ranging from heart disease and diabetes to cancer.

To give yourself the best shot at a good night’s sleep, create healthy sleep habits:

  • Avoid late-day caffeine
  • Keep electronic devices (phones, tablets, computers) out of the bedroom
  • Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet
  • Limit alcohol intake before bed
  • Maintain a regular schedule of bedtime and wake-up time
  • Practice relaxation rituals (a warm bath, herbal tea, meditation, yoga) to help you mentally unwind before bed

Sleep is often overlooked when it comes to your health — and especially your weight. But getting good sleep on a regular basis can be just the boost you need to achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

Take the Next Step

To learn more about how sleep affects your weight, reach out to your primary care physician.