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The Role of Sleep and Weight Loss

It seems counterintuitive to push sleep as part of a successful weight-loss program, but the fact is that sleep is crucial to managing appetite as well as metabolism.

What happens during sleep

To understand how sleep and weight loss (and gain) go hand in hand, let’s review what happens during sleep which can make an impact on our ability to manage our weight.


During sleep, the brain is hardly taking a break. In certain stages of sleep, it’s quite busy with tasks such as sending out human growth hormone (HGH) to the cells to repair damage, consolidating new memories, resetting rhythms, cleaning out waste products in the brain, and balancing the body’s chemistry. Ideally, a good night’s sleep will take care of all of these tasks and more, allowing you to waken refreshed and ready to go the following morning.

The last task balancing body chemistry relates specifically to certain kinds of hormones which regulate many body processes.

Two of these hormones, leptin and ghrelin, work in tandem to help you regulate your appetite. If you get enough sleep, they make a fine team.

Ghrelin lets you know when you are hungry (or in need of fuel). Meanwhile, leptin monitors your sense of fullness (or satiation) after meals so you know when you’ve had enough.

After a bad night’s sleep, you’re groggy during the day. Your brain does not correct for imbalances in ghrelin or leptin if it is sleep deprived. Instead, it releases more ghrelin and less leptin, creating an imbalance that can be disastrous for anyone trying to lose weight.

Ghrelin, in too much supply, mistakenly senses fatigue as a signal for you to consume more energy. The best kinds of quick energy come in high-calorie packages: high-fat foods promise lots of calories, and high-carbohydrate foods pack a quick energy punch. Your cravings for these kinds of foods happen as a result of sleep loss.

Meanwhile, leptin is in short supply. Without enough leptin to oversee calorie consumption, there’s no way to know for sure when you are actually full.People who are sleep deprived frequently refer to feeling hungry all day long, even after meals. Without enough leptin, brain chemistry can often overpower our sense of willpower over snacks and unnecessary meals.

Sleep and metabolism

A third hormone, insulin, comes from the pancreas. Insulin’s job is to convert, or metabolize, incoming calories into energy that the body can use efficiently as fuel at the cellular level. It is only released into the bloodstream when there are calories that need to be processed.

Poor sleep makes it hard for insulin to do this important work, which is troubling if you are victim to cravings and an unchecked appetite.

When incoming calories aren’t properly metabolized, blood sugar (glucose) remains in the blood when it should be absorbed by the cells to be used as fuel.

You’ve heard the term insulin resistance, no doubt. It refers to the body’s inability to recognize insulin in the system. This important regulating presence in the bloodstream, if overlooked, creates the conditions which lead to the body becoming up to 30 percent less insulin sensitive.

The end result? Slowed metabolism, which leads to weight gain, as well as the development of type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes.

Remember our friends, ghrelin and leptin? They have a relationship to insulin imbalances following sleep deprivation as well.

Ghrelin, thanks to poor sleep, is on a binge, urging the body to satisfy what ends up being an endless appetite, which is completely at odds with insulin’s inability to metabolize these foods.

Leptin, the hormone that signals for us to stop eating, can also develop resistance, like insulin. Someone with leptin resistance may have enough leptin in their bloodstream, but the body and brain are ignoring its messages to stop eating.

And all of this happens simply because you aren’t getting enough sleep.

Sleep deprivation as a roadblock to weight loss

The thing about sleep deprivation: while it leads to these interior chemistry imbalances that drive behaviors and habits we succumb to, it also saps us of the energy necessary to intellectually discipline ourselves to eat sensibly or make better choices.

Sleep deprivation also causes dips in mood, which leave us feeling shabby, even blue, and these moods are powerful informants of behavior. Depression and anxiety also commonly lead to emotional eating, choosing “comfort foods,” and other behaviors that perpetuate weight gain instead of weight loss, such as forgoing the gym for a day on the couch watching TV.

Causes of sleep deprivation

There are lots of reasons why we are sleep deprived. Most commonly, we find ourselves short on sleep because:

  • We have an unidentified sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea or insomnia

  • We have other medical or mental health conditions which interrupt quality sleep

  • We take medications which may interfere with or fragment sleep

  • We simply don’t allow ourselves adequate time to sleep

  • We don’t give ourselves quality sleeping conditions, or we practice bad habits which interfere with sleep

Adding sleep to your weight loss program

Diet and exercise are certainly major keys to improving weight loss goals and managing a healthy weight.

Watching what we eat is critical because thoughtful calorie intake is at the heart of weight management.Exercise helps jumpstart our metabolism and can prevent insulin resistance as well as improve muscle tone, bone strength, mood, and body processes (including sleep!).

Without a good night’s sleep, these valiant efforts could be thwarted if brain and body chemistry shift out of balance. It’s better to think of your weight loss program as a three-pronged approach, then: diet, exercise, and sleep, if you are to achieve your weight loss goals over the long term.

At Sound Sleep Health, we work in concert with Sound Medical Weight Loss to help those struggling with the sleep-weight connection. If you are challenged to lose those unwanted pounds, you may wish to consider working with a knowledgeable, trained physician who can help you lose weight and reclaim your health in a safe, healthy way.

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