The Obesity-Sleep Connection

person holding smartphone beside dog

Lillian was very sleepy. She had just gotten out of bed at 6 am to get ready for her job. She wanted to wake up more and get some energy, so she drank two cups of coffee and ate a jelly doughnut. She left for work, where more pastries were available. She ate a large lunch to combat fatigue and snacked again during the afternoon. After dinner, she hurried to get to her second job, which lasted until 11:30 pm. Exhausted at midnight, she fell into bed, but took a while to settle down. She is 5 feet tall and weighs 265.

Our Sleep Deprived Society

This scenario is not uncommon. Many in our society believe in working hard and playing hard. Some even brag about their short sleeping hours, like a college student who “pulls an all-nighter.” Many, unfortunately, have no choice in their sleeping hours, like Lillian, above, who works two jobs to make ends meet. Some people have even more than two jobs. Others work the night shift while carrying on responsibilities at home.

Lack of sleep is a big problem in our 24/7 society. We keep our bodies exposed to light, food, and activity. Our extra working hours contribute to it, but our technology does also. Many of our modern conveniences keep us exposed to light when the body says it’s time for darkness and sleep. Several examples would be staying up late to get work done on the computer, watching television late, and leaving lights on for other activities. Many find that noise is a problem.

Damage to the Body from Short Sleep

When your body clock is disrupted, it throws off physiological functions, including your metabolism.The ability to process glucose (sugar) in the blood is disrupted, and the levels can be raised to those of a diabetic. Short sleepers need to make 30% more insulin than normal sleepers. Also, the two hormones involved in appetite, ghrelin and leptin, are thrown out of whack. Levels of ghrelin, the hormone that makes you hungry, are raised. Levels of leptin, which lowers your appetite and makes you feel full, decline.

Studies Prove the Obesity-Lack of Sleep Connection

A study followed 16,000 nurses for 16 years. They filled out questionnaires about weight, sleep habits, diet, and lifestyles. At the start, none of the women was obese, and all were in good health. At the end of the study, women who slept five hours or less per night had a 30% higher risk of gaining 30 pounds compared to those who slept seven hours. Results have been similar in other studies. In a review of similar trackings done by Harvard and Case Western Reserve Universities, the results were the same – short sleepers gain weight.

Lack of sleep also sets the stage for obesity in other ways. People become too tired to exercise, lowering the number of calories burned. They are awake longer so they are exposed to more food. A night of poor sleep could be followed by a day of eating with no satisfaction.

Many people suffer from sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia. These additionally contribute to sleep deprivation. Obesity is a cause of sleep apnea, and untreated sleep apnea thus adds to the weight problem. Also, people who sleep less seem to prefer eating foods that are high in calories and carbohydrates. Seventy seven percent of older adults complain of sleep problems.

“Add all these features together and we have the perfect model for obesity,” says Dr. Richard Simcon, a sleep specialist in Washington state. Adds Eve Van Cauter, PhD., a sleep researcher, sleep deprivation is “the royal route to obesity.”

Sleep Deprivation, Obesity, and Beyond

Obesity is a well-known risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Lack of sleep alone raises the risk of heart attack and stroke. Those who sleep less than six hours a night are 50% more likely to have a stroke or heart attack. Lack of sleep is also a major cause of inattention, which is blamed for many automobile accidents and mistakes that could have been prevented with an hour or two of extra sleep.

A Few Suggestions

If you are on a diet, and are getting less than 6 hours of sleep, try getting a few extra hours in during the week. You may find less of a craving for fatty, starchy, and sugary foods. If you can switch your schedule to gain an hour or two of more sleep, perhaps that can help you shed a few pounds.

Here are some simple tips to help you sleep better:

  • 1. Avoid caffeine from 2 pm on
  • 2. Don’t exercise before bed, but do exercise during the day
  • 3. Watch what you eat before bed – a light meal or healthy snacks or a bowl of cereal are fine

If sleep issues continue, see a sleep specialist.