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More and more Americans are struggling with insomnia and other sleep disorders these days. Whether you have sleep apnea, racing thoughts, or simply too much on your plate, poor sleep can take a toll on your health and well-being, including a tendency to hold onto excess weight. Sleep loss can contribute to weight gain through various mechanisms and influences on hormonal balance, metabolism, and behavior patterns. Here are some ways in which inadequate sleep can lead to weight gain. 

6 Ways Poor Sleep Can Contribute to Weight Gain 

1 – Hormonal Changes

Ghrelin vs. Leptin: One of the effects of sleep deprivation is an imbalance between two key hormones that regulate hunger and appetite. Ghrelin is a hormone produced in the stomach and small intestine that stimulates appetite. Its production tends to go up with insufficient sleep, leading to heightened feelings of hunger.  

On the other hand, leptin, a hormone that signals fullness and suppresses appetite, goes down. When leptin levels drop, it’s more difficult to achieve a feeling of satiety, leading to greater food intake and cravings for high-calorie or high-carbohydrate foods. [1] 

Estrogens vs. Progesterone: Lack of sleep can also contribute to another hormone imbalance impacting body weight: estrogens versus progesterone.  

In an animal model of sleep deprivation, the sleep-deprived group had significantly lower levels of estradiol and progesterone compared to the control group. [2] Low progesterone, especially relative to estrogens, is associated with estrogen dominance and weight gain. [3] 

Estrogen may affect the metabolic rate, influencing how the body burns calories. When estrogen levels decrease, such as during menopause, women might experience a slower metabolism, making it easier to gain weight.  

2 – Metabolic Changes

Sleep deprivation can disrupt metabolism. It can affect how the body processes glucose (blood sugar), leading to insulin resistance and an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. [4] 

In a 2022 animal study, adding a bifidobacteria-based probiotic lessened the effects of insulin resistance caused by long-term sleep deprivation over one month. [5] If you’re already eating healthy but developing insulin resistance due to lack of sleep, adding a probiotic with Bifidobacteria may help. 

Sleep restriction can also reduce a person’s desire for physical activity, like a daily workout or even using your standing desk, making it easier to gain weight. [6] 

3 – Increased Caloric Intake

When tired, people often seek out energy-dense foods and beverages, relying on caffeine or sugary snacks for a quick energy boost. This can lead to a higher calorie intake, particularly from unhealthy and processed foods, contributing to weight gain over time.  

You’ve probably experienced it yourself. When you’re sleepy, doesn’t a pick-me-up latte, a handful of chips, or an afternoon square of chocolate sound good? It’s not just in your head. A Randomized Controlled Trial published in 2009 found that short sleep duration was associated with increased snacking and higher intake of calories. [7 

4 – Disruption of Circadian Rhythms

Irregular or inadequate sleep patterns can disrupt our circadian rhythms. This internal clock regulates various functions in the body, including the microbiome in the gut, hormone release, and the timing of metabolic processes. [8] Disruption of this rhythm may lead to weight gain through metabolic disturbances, meal timing, inflammation, and impaired glucose tolerance.  

Studies of shift workers have found that for every hour shifted to accommodate work hours, metabolic syndrome risk went up by 1.3. Metabolic syndrome is highly linked to high blood sugar and weight gain around the waist. [9] 

5 – Decision Making

Sleep deprivation particularly affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which impacts cognitive function and our decision-making processes. [10] When sleep-deprived, people are more likely to make poor food choices or eat impulsively, consuming more calories than they would if well-rested.   

This was also shown in a 2016 study conducted at the University of Chicago. For this study, researchers had healthy volunteers follow a fixed diet and assigned either 8.5 or 4.5 hours of sleep for four consecutive days. When sleep-deprived, the participants chose less healthy snack options and ate more calories than they did when getting normal sleep. [11] 

6 – Increased Stress Levels

Reduced sleep time can make the body feel that it’s under stress, so it increases cortisol levels. [12] The increased cortisol in the bloodstream may increase emotional eating or cravings for comfort foods. These foods, like chips, cookies, and ice cream, tend to be high in calories, sugar, starch, and unhealthy fats, making weight management difficult.

What Are Some Ways to Improve Sleep?

Getting quality sleep is essential if you’re trying to achieve a healthy weight. While the amount of sleep may vary (women need more sleep than men), averaging six or fewer hours a night is associated with a higher body mass index (BMI). [13]  

  • Physical activity – Getting exercise can help with sleep quality and energy expenditure. [14] Those who don’t get physical activity have a higher risk of obesity, heart disease, and all kinds of adverse health outcomes. [15] 
  • Sleep hygiene – Good sleep hygiene involves having good sleep habits, such as regular bedtimes and wake-up times and avoiding screens before bed. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed or late-night snacking are also examples of good sleep hygiene. [16 
  • Try some herbs – Certain herbs are known to promote better sleep due to their calming or sedating properties. California poppy, Kava, Passionflower, and Chamomile can improve sleep, depending on what you have going on. For example, in a 2020 study, California poppy combined with valerian improved sleep quality in adults with insomnia. [17] Kava may improve deep sleep and help insomniacs feel more refreshed upon awakening. [18] Your local Wellness Way clinic can help you determine which may work best for you. 
  • Work on improving your overall health – As mentioned, poor sleep can lead to hormone and metabolic changes. However, hormone and metabolic imbalances may also contribute to poor sleep. It may go beyond ghrelin and leptin and involve imbalances in progesterone and estrogen, for example. Blood sugar imbalances may also be involved, leading to hypoglycemia at night. That’s why there isn’t one magic herb or solution for poor sleep or weight loss.  

It all really goes back to overall health restoration. When there’s chronic inflammation or imbalance due to the 3 T’s (traumas, toxins, and thoughts), the body is kept in chronic stress and survival mode. As long as you’re in survival mode, your body will tend to store energy in the form of fat and stay hyper-alert for any additional stress or danger coming its way.

The Wellness Way Can Help 

We do health differently! The Wellness Way approach is to do extensive testing to determine why your body is in survival mode, keeping you stressed, awake, and unable to reach your ideal weight. Addressing your sleep issues and prioritizing overall wellness is essential for maintaining a healthy weight. If you’re not currently working with a Wellness Way doctor or coach, contact a Wellness Way Clinic today! 

References:

  1. Associations of short sleep duration with appetite-regulating hormones and adipokines: A systematic review and meta-analysis – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  2. Sleep deprivation affects sex hormones secretion by regulating the expression of the circadian clock gene in the hypothalamus and pituitary via the PI3K/Akt signaling pathway in pregnant rats – PubMed (nih.gov)
  3. Low Progesterone: Causes, Symptoms, Tests & Treatment (clevelandclinic.org) 
  4. Sleep Deprivation: Effects on Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance – PMC (nih.gov) 
  5. Insulin resistance induced by long-term sleep deprivation in rhesus macaques can be attenuated by Bifidobacterium – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  6. Short-term sleep loss decreases physical activity under free-living conditions but does not increase food intake under time-deprived laboratory conditions in healthy men – ScienceDirect 
  7. Sleep curtailment is accompanied by increased intake of calories from snacks – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  8. Genetic and environmental circadian disruption induce weight gain through changes in the gut microbiome – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  9. Metabolic consequences of sleep and circadian disorders – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  10. Sleep deprivation leads to a loss of functional connectivity in frontal brain regions – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  11. Molecular ties between lack of sleep and weight gain | National Institutes of Health (NIH) 
  12. Sleep and Obesity – PMC (nih.gov) 
  13. Associations between sleep loss and increased risk of obesity and diabetes – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  14. Exercise training improves sleep quality in middle-aged and older adults with sleep problems: a systematic review – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  15. Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases – PMC (nih.gov) 
  16. Sleep physiology, pathophysiology, and sleep hygiene – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  17. A combination of Eschscholtzia californica Cham. and Valeriana officinalis L. extracts for adjustment insomnia: A prospective observational study – PMC (nih.gov) 
  18. Critical evaluation of the effect of valerian extract on sleep structure and sleep quality – PubMed (nih.gov)

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Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. It’s not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your Wellness Way clinic or personal physician, especially if currently taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Pregnant women, in particular, should seek the advice of a physician before trying any herb or supplement listed on this website. Always speak with your individual clinic before adding any medication, herb, or nutritional supplement to your health protocol. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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