We all know that sleep is an important piece of the puzzle for making your healthiest self. We’ve all experienced sleepless nights, whether it’s from staying out too late with friends, getting caught up in work until wee hours of the morning, or getting woken up in the night from a child or sick pet. We know how terrible it feels the next morning. It doesn’t just make us feel tired, it also can make us cranky and irritable, give us terrible sugar cravings, make us want to eat more in general, remove our self control, feel unable to concentrate, and promote weight gain.
What are the reasons behind sleep and weight gain? And what can we do to ensure that our sleep is helping out with our waist lines and health goals?
A study done back in 2009 revealed that sleep disturbances, whether they are the inability to fall asleep at an appropriate time or waking up a lot in the night, both contribute to weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. A huge part of the reasoning behind this comes down to how your circadian rhythm affects your cortisol levels, and then how wacky cortisol levels contribute to weight gain. Basically, having a proper circadian rhythm helps your cortisol levels stay where they should be. Cortisol is the hormone released by your adrenal glands that helps you deal with stress. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we are more stressed out than is natural or healthy, so our body is releasing too much cortisol too often in order to deal with these stresses. This causes cortisol levels that are irregular, and unfortunately after awhile of this high cortisol output, it can cause adrenal fatigue. An unnatural, broken cortisol rhythm, whether it’s become adrenal fatigue or not, affects your body in many negative ways. Most relatively and importantly for this conversation is that it makes it very difficult for your body to burn fat for fuel, it increases the rate of storing fat, makes you crave sugar, and raises your blood sugar levels. All this equates to weight gain, or at least a much harder time loosing weight, if that’s your goal.
So what should your cortisol levels look like? As the graph above shows, a normal and natural cortisol rhythm should be such that your cortisol rises first thing in the morning, then gradually lowers and tapers off throughout the rest of the day. It will increase a bit with each meal, but should overall be lowering until bedtime, when it should be at it’s lowest point. If your rhythm is like this, you should feel awake and ready to start the day in the morning, alert throughout the day, then sleepy at night. Since your circadian rhythm directly influences your cortisol levels, if you don’t feel this way, I would recommend looking into natural ways to get back to your natural circadian rhythm. A few basic things to concentrate on would be to expose yourself to natural daylight when you want your cortisol levels up (first thing in the morning) and avoiding artificial light when you want them to be low. For example, video games and television at night not only amp up brains but also disrupt the natural hormonal release of melatonin along with lowering cortisol, which is meant to help with sleepiness. Eating and exercising at appropriate times (when you want your cortisol levels raised) will also help regulate your levels. The same can be said about what to avoid. In the evening, when you want your circadian rhythm lowering, avoid those stimulating things such as light, food, and exercise. There are more extensive tips on how to get back on track, but I find that the summer is the perfect time to simplify it all and do your best at structuring your sleep around the natural cycles of light.
The impact on our bodies from a lack of proper sleep and irregular cortisol levels is huge. One study found that a lack of proper sleep directly relates to increased appetite. And not only were people wanting to eat more, but the reward centers in their brains were more active for junk food. It’s much harder to make good decisions about food when we’re sleep deprived, since our impulse control is limited. In fact, studies even show that areas in the frontal lobe of the brain (the area which governs impulse control) were diminished after bad night’s sleep. So not only do we want junk food more, but we have a much harder time saying no. Lastly, sleep deprived people tend to loose as much lean mass weight as fat mass when calorie restricting for weight loss purposes, which is not good.
Another hormone that affects weight gain is insulin. Both cortisol and insulin are considered to be “major hormones” and their roles in the body are very important. A healthy body should be “insulin sensitive”, meaning it can release insulin in just the right amounts for what the body needs after digesting food. When a body becomes insulin resistant, the fat cells become less sensitive to insulin, which causes high blood sugar, therefor making them more susceptible to obesity and diabetes. Sleep deprivation makes it a lot harder for fat cells to respond to insulin. This means that a lack of proper sleep can affect you at a cellular level- your fat cells are actually unable to respond to insulin properly. And unfortunately, it can take only one night of bad sleep for your body to become insulin resistant. There are many studies backing up this claim that sleep debt has a harmful impact on carbohydrate metabolism, and therefor weight gain.
So if you feel like you’ve been doing everything right- you have your diet in check, you exercise (but not too much!), your life stress is low, and life’s joys are high,yet you’re still unable to loose the weight, you may want to consider prioritizing sleep a little more. Of course this comes after really thinking about whether it’s necessary or even healthy to try to loose weight. In our culture we tend to assume that weight loss is usually an acceptable goal, since obesity rates are so high, and our social media honors thinness. But let’s not be too quick to make the assumption that weight loss is always a good idea. In fact, being at a healthy weight is especially important for fertility, and there’s no room for being too thin or undernourished. Even if weight loss is a good goal, focusing solely on weight loss rather than other health related goals, and being unhappy with yourself until you attain your weight loss goal can be very unhealthy. I definitely urge you to keep a positive mindset about yourself and your body even if you do want to loose weight for healthy reasons.
If you do think that weight loss is an appropriate, healthy goal and you’re ready to focus more on happy, healthy sleeping (can you imagine sleeping as blissfully as the adorable baby above?), there are plenty of tips to help get you on your way. I won’t go into lots of detail here on what those specific changes are since that would be a whole other blog post. But check out this great post as well as this one , oh and especially this one, (after you finish this post of course!) and you’ll be on your way. But I will say that I think that the most critical part in being able to successfully prioritize sleep is just that- making it a priority. It may sound obvious, but it’s usually a lot harder than it sounds, so it takes some focus. Our busy culture tends to honor those who can get away with less sleep (or who think they can), somehow thinking they’re more productive and therefor more honorable. I doubt that those who sleep less are more productive- at least in the long term they aren’t since at some point they will likely crash and burn. And being busy doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being productive, anyway. And while productivity is what we’re all seeking, I definitely don’t think that being more outwardly productive makes someone more honorable. I just don’t think that doing more necessarily (and usually doesn’t) equate to you being more. (Think about that for a minute!) Sleep is not a waste of time. It’s the time for our bodies to become restored, to detox, and help us to focus better when we are awake and active. The reasons for needing good sleep are endless! So, if you want to, make it a priority, make a few changes, and see what happens to both your health and your waistline!