How sleep affects your weight

Our relationship to sleep

Our relationship with sleep changes as we age. As a child, you avoided sleep. Although it was the time in life you required the most of it, taking naps and going to bed were the dreaded moments of the day as a child. As a teenager, you slowly began to warm up to the idea of sleep. You didn’t run from it as you did as a child, but you often took it for granted. You probably viewed sleep as an activity left for the weekend. Going to bed late and sleeping all Saturday morning was a common practice. In college and your early 20s with long nights of study and finishing projects, sleep was often a rare commodity. Sleep was the celebratory ending to the completion of a successful week of semester finals.

But now, your relationship with sleep is like an old friend you wish you could spend more time with. Oh, how you cherish the time you get to spend together. You hear your mother’s voice in your head as you lay your children down for nap time against their will: “I wish I could be the one taking a nap!”

I get it! We all live busy lives. And more than anything else, sleep is one of the first things to go during the especially busy seasons of life. You’ll never hear someone deprived of sleep say,  “I just wish I had spent more time Netflix binging last night.” No, because we know sleep is important, but I don’t think we realize just how important it truly is. And that is why when life is crazy, it’s not our eating habits that are neglected, and it’s not our TV watching that suffers – it’s the number of hours spent sleeping each night that is cut.

According to Gallup data, in the past 75 years, Americans have begun sleeping 1.1 less hours of sleep each night. That may not seem like a big deal. But according to a 2015 study led by Professor Shahrad Taheri, MBBS, PhD, just 30 minutes of sleep debt each day can have a significant effect on obesity and insulin resistance.

How sleep affects your weight

Beyond the dark rims under your eyes sleep impacts our bodies in a variety of ways. We’re aware of the impact sleep deprivation has on our mood. Lack of sleep often leaves us grumpy and irritable. A lack of sleep also affects our energy. A less than optimal night’s sleep will leave you tired and lethargic. But an often overlooked affect of sleep deprivation is the impact it has on our weight. And this doesn’t refer to late night snacks. A lack of sleep affects your weight in ways you may not know.

Sleep affects your dietary consumption

Do you remember the last time you stayed up late and began craving a kale salad? You probably don’t because sleep deprivation changes our food preferences – and not for the better.

A study conducted by Dr. Matthew Walker and his team of researchers published in 2013, showed that sleep deprived subjects were much more likely to make unhealthy food choices and consume higher amounts of calories. Compared to the choices made while rested, the sleep-deprived subjects chose food that added up to 600 calories more than their usual choices. “There’s something that changes in our brain when we’re sleepy that’s irrespective of how much energy we need,” says Dr. Kenneth P. Wright, director of the sleep and chronobiology lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “The brain wants more even when the energy need has been fulfilled.”

Dr. Wright suspects the reason our brain’s response to food changes with sleep can be attributed to adenosine. Adenosine is a metabolic byproduct that disrupts neural function and promotes sleepiness as it accumulates in the brain. One of the ways that caffeine stimulates wakefulness is by blocking adenosine. Adenosine is also cleared from the system during sleep.

According to Dr. Walker, adenosine builds up and could start to degrade communication between networks in the brain without enough sleep. Getting sleep may be the equivalent of rebooting the brain.

In addition to adenosine, cortisol levels are dramatically affected by our amount of sleep. Cortisol is the stress hormone that is responsible for increasing your appetite. The brain’s cortisol levels increase with the less amount of sleep. A large majority of adults respond to stress with over consumption. Hormones that stimulate appetite increase, while hormones that blunt it drop. People become less sensitive to insulin, raising their risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Sleep affects your physical performance

Sleep deprivation negatively impacts your brain’s cognitive function. This manifests itself in slower reaction time, poor decision-making, and poor memory capability.

Sleep is a time for your body to repair and restore. Each night’s rest allows your body to rejuvenate for the next day. It repairs itself from the previous day’s stress and prepares for the next day. “Sleep is important for pretty much every one of your physical systems,” says Janet Kennedy, PhD, the founder of NYC Sleep Doctor.

In addition to repair, sleep provides the necessary energy and motivation to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle. After a short night’s rest, the last thing you typically want to do is workout. And the affects of that lack of sleep compound itself when you try to make healthier food choices. Not only do our preferences change with a lack of sleep, but also the will power to make healthier choices seems to decrease.

Whether you’re trying to shed some inches, maintain a health lifestyle, or somewhere in between, don’t neglect your sleep. It’s time we realize that sleep is one thing that should not be neglected. Maybe you need to revert back to an earlier stage in life and schedule some much needed rest. Or maybe tonight you need to skip the primetime binge session and call it an early night.