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Health Gain - Weight Loss - Part 10 - Could More Sleep Mean Less Weight?

     Getting sufficient sleep on a regular basis is vital for good health.  It is during the deeper levels of sleep that cells, organs and entire body systems are repaired, restored and rejuvenated. Adequate amounts of quality sleep not only has far-reaching effects on overall health, but also plays a huge role in the balance and release of important hormones that regulate metabolism and appetite. According to many studies, there is a clear correlation between sleep deprivation and problems with either gaining or not being able to lose weight.

     If you are among those who consistently get less than seven hours of sound sleep a night, you are not alone. More than one third of Americans regularly experience some form of insomnia that interferes with the quality of their life. Considering all of the responsibilities and demands that many women have on their plates in today’s world, it is not surprising that American women only average six and a half hours of sleep. Research shows, though, that at least seven and a half hours are optimal to release needed fat-burning hormones and to prevent the rise in hormones that cause a person to store fat.

     In a study conducted by Sanjay Patel, M.D., a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, the sleep habits of 70,000 women were studied over a 16-year period to determine how the amount of sleep they got each night affected their weight.  At the beginning of the study, it was discovered that women who only slept five hours or less weighed more than women of similar build who slept at least seven hours each night.  Over the next 10 years, the women who slept less gained an additional 1.6 pounds each year. This translated to a 32% greater likelihood of experiencing major weight gain over the course of time than the group who slept at least seven hours. Even women who slept six hours increased their weight gain at the rate of 12% more than those who slept seven hours over a ten-year period of the study.

Hormone Imbalances Created by Lack of Sleep

     Lack of sufficient sleep produces hormonal changes that affect appetite and the amount of calories burned when a person is at rest.  People who are tired tend to crave sweets and other refined carbohydrates, because the body is looking for quick energy and these types of foods almost instantly cause blood sugar levels to rise. However, the more blood sugar levels rise, the more insulin is released.  Excess amounts of insulin convert glucose to stored fat and prevent the burning of previously stored fat for energy.

     An even more serious consequence of high insulin levels is that cell membranes eventually become unresponsive, which leads to a condition known as insulin resistance.  A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago, which used test subjects who were young and healthy, showed that just a few nights of sleeping poorly can make a person 25% less sensitive to insulin. In terms of insulin sensitivity, this equals the effect produced from gaining 20 to 30 pounds.  Moreover, insulin resistance results in a breakdown in cell communication and an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other serious disorders (for further understanding of the effects of raised glucose and insulin levels, please read my article “Sugar Bondage – Why You Need to be Free – Part Two”).

     In addition, higher levels of insulin reduce the levels of two hormones involved in fat burning - glucagon and growth hormone. Glucagon is a fat burning hormone that releases body fat stored in fat tissues and deposits it into the bloodstream where muscles can burn it for energy instead of glucose. Growth hormone promotes muscle growth and regulates the body’s proportion of fat.  It is typically released when the body is in the deeper levels of sleep.

     Though not as well known, two other hormones that affect weight in conjunction with inadequate levels of sleep are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is a hormone secreted by cells in the stomach and pancreas that stimulates appetite. Higher levels of ghrelin occur when the duration of sleep is habitually shortened. Reduced sleep also causes a drop in leptin, the hormone that tells your body when you are full. According to studies, it only takes two nights of poor sleep to cut leptin levels by 20% and increase ghrelin levels by 30%. Needless to say, this situation tends to greatly increase snacking.  Since most snack-type foods are high in carbohydrates and low in nutrients, this increased snacking inevitably lead to increased weight.  

The Effect of Cortisol Levels on Weight

     Sleep deprivation elevates levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands and released (along with adrenaline) to stimulate the production of quick energy when the body encounters stress. As long as the levels of these hormones stay balanced in the body, cortisol can be beneficial in reducing inflammation, increasing short-term memory, converting protein into energy, and helping the liver remove toxins from the body. However, too much cortisol can contribute to weight gain and adversely affect blood pressure, blood sugar balance, memory, bone density, muscle tissue and immune response.  Sustained high levels of cortisol are linked with the creation of visceral or “belly” fat (fat stored deep in the abdominal cavity around internal organs), an extreme detriment to health in itself.

     The “fight or flight” response of the body when stress or a threat occurs is meant to be short-lived, but stress from ongoing disturbances to normal sleep patterns interferes with the deeper stages of sleep in which the work of bodily restoration and repair take place. At that point, insufficient sleep itself becomes a source of stress to the body.

      Normally, cortisol levels enter the body according to a rhythmic “sleep-wake” pattern that follows the rising and setting of the sun. These levels rise with the sun (light stimulates their release) and generally peak between 6 and 9 a.m.  Cortisol levels are meant to decrease at night and be at their lowest during the evening hours, when the body should be winding down in preparation for sleep.

     When that time of relaxation and restful sleep does not occur for any length of time, cortisol levels can get out of balance. Any rise of cortisol during the night may result in sleeping lightly and waking frequently. If it peaks during the night rather than in the morning as it should, the person will wake up before they are rested and have difficulty getting back to sleep. Instead of the levels being high in the morning when energy is needed to start the day, it is low and can cause the person to wake up tired, groggy and more hungry the next day, rather than feeling refreshed.

     This situation leads to weight gain because cortisol continues to stimulate fat and carbohydrate metabolism for quick energy even after the stressful situation is removed. The body cannot distinguish whether the stress is mental, physical or emotional.  Because no real expenditure of physical energy took place as would have occurred in a true “fight or flight” response, the excess calories generated by cortisol are instead invested into added pounds.

How Lack of Sleep Affects Health

     The implications affecting health due to consistent sleep deficit are quite serious, especially for those who have chronic insomnia (sleeping less than four hours per night).  How well a person sleeps may very well be an indicator for how long that person will live.  Some evidence suggests that consistently shortchanged sleep may shorten a person’s life span by 8-10 years.  Lack of sleep is known to:

  • Weaken the immune system (that recharges at night).  People who sleep nine hours instead of seven have greater than normal “natural killer cell” activity.
  • Suppress the body’s ability to produce melatonin, a potent free radical fighter
  • Increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease
  • Contribute to disorders related to stress (i.e. stomach ulcers, depression, headaches, asthma)
  • Increase the rate of tumor growth by as much as two to three times
  • Impair memory and decrease brain activity related to alertness and cognitive performance
  • Increase risk of diabetes

Tips for Better Sleep

     If you are not getting sufficient sleep on a regular basis or just want to develop better sleep habits, here are a few suggestions that could help your body better obtain more restful and rejuvenating sleep.  

  • Help your body get into a good sleep rhythm by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.  If at all possible, go to bed early enough that you are sleeping soundly before 11:00 p.m.  The body does its peak repair (cleansing of the liver and gallbladder for instance) between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Try to avoid day-time naps.
  • Stop all activities that could over-stimulate your brain or body at least one hour before bedtime. This would include any heavy physical activity, TV, computer, loud music or reading a suspenseful book.
  • Use the hour before bed to engage in activities that will help you to wind down and relax. Reading the Bible or something uplifting, listening to soothing music, journaling, and engaging in prayer and meditation are good ways to slow down your mind and body.  If you have tight muscles or just have trouble relaxing, try soaking in a hot bath with 1-2 cups of Epsom salts added to the bath water.  The body will absorb the magnesium from the Epsom salts, which is useful for calming nerves, promoting relaxation and relieving sore muscles. Adding several drops of essential oils such as lavender, sandalwood, chamomile, ylang ylang, red mandarin or geranium can be an additional benefit for helping the mind and body to relax. 
  • Keep the environment where you sleep free of any sources of light (light disrupts the production of melatonin and serotonin needed for good sleep and signals the body to become awake).  Cover windows, glowing clocks and anything else that would emit even the tiniest bit of light.  An eye mask may be helpful to use if you cannot avoid all sources of light.  Take measures to eliminate any noise disturbances as well.
  • Keep the area where you sleep free of clutter and distractions (TV’s, computers, work projects, etc.)  Refrain from keeping or doing work in the area where you sleep.
  • Try not to eat too heavy or too late in the evening. Avoid drinking fluids at least two hours or longer before bed. Avoid consuming caffeine (remember – chocolate contains caffeine!), alcohol, spicy or sugary foods four to six hours before sleep. Anything that is a stimulant makes it difficult for the body to enter the deeper levels of sleep the body uses to repair and recharge itself.
  • Exercise on a regular basis.  Aerobic exercise increases deep breathing, lowers stress and cortisol levels and allows the body to descend into deeper stages of sleep. However, it is best not to exercise close to bedtime, because it may interfere with your ability to fall asleep (late afternoon is the best time to exercise to promote deeper sleep).
  • If you have trouble relaxing and getting to sleep, calming herbs such as valerian, chamomile, hops, passion flower and kava kava could be beneficial.  Supplements such as melatonin and 5-HTP can be useful to re-synchronize your sleep rhythm after disruptions, such as changing time zones in travel or other situations that throw your body off schedule. B-vitamins, zinc, magnesium or other nutrients may need to be supplemented to make up for deficiencies that interfere with the normal function of the body related to sleep.

     The above list is by no means comprehensive, but may give you some idea of what you can do to naturally enhance the quality and quantity of your sleep.  Please bear in mind that sleeping pills are not the answer for truly improved sleep.  In addition to developing a dependency on them keeps you from relying on your natural ability to fall asleep, most of these medications interfere with normal brain wave patterns and do not allow you to experience the deeper levels of restorative sleep. This means you will not wake up truly refreshed, plus you may experience decreased brain cell activity during the day. Moreover, sleeping pills often do not work well over time, since the body tends to build up an increasingly higher tolerance level to them.

Concluding Thoughts

     Struggles with sleep can be very frustrating, not to mention discouraging, but as we do our part to incorporate healthy habits and natural means for getting our bodies in sync with God’s design, we can better experience His promise to give “His beloved sleep” (Ps. 127:2).  Developing and maintaining good sleep habits will enable you to enjoy improved health, more balanced hormones and a greater ability to control your appetite and weight.


Copyright © 2008-2015 Lucinda Bedogne, CNHP, CNC

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