Is a lack of sleep making me fat?

By: Julia Layton

With an ever-increasing number of studies finding a direct connection between sleep deprivation and weight gain, it's difficult to deny the cause-and-effect relationship. People who get at least seven hours of sleep per night tend to have less body fat than people who don't. There are, of course, other factors involved in determining who becomes overweight and who doesn't, like food intake, exercise and genes. But sleep is a more integral of the process than most people realize. In a study involving 9,000 people between 1982 and 1984 (NHANES I), researchers found that people who averaged six hours of sleep per night were 27 percent more likely to be overweight than their seven-to-nine hour counterparts; and those averaging five hours of sleep per night were 73 percent more likely to be overweight.

Many people who are sleep deprived don't even know it. Lots of us think there's quite a bit of give in how much sleep a person needs to be healthy and well functioning, but most researchers disagree, putting seven hours as the minimum for all except the very young and the very old. Besides straight numbers, there are a couple of ways to tell if you're sleep deprived, including:

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  • Are you typically drowsy during a good portion of the day, especially the morning?
  • Are you falling asleep at night in a couple of minutes?

Most non-sleep-deprived people take about 15 minutes to fall asleep at night. Chronic sleepiness and a nearly-instant state of sleep when you get into bed are good indicators that you're not getting enough sleep.

If you are sleep deprived, there are some obvious tie-ins to obesity, like chronic sleepiness making physical activity unlikely. But there are also a number of things going on in your body that could contribute to weight gain. In scientific studies, the most commonly cited effects of sleep deprivation are hormonal disturbances, specifically involving the hormones leptin and ghrelin.

When you don't get enough sleep, your body has too little leptin and too much ghrelin.

 

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Leptin and Ghrelin

The hormone leptin is intricately involved in the regulation of appetite, metabolism and calorie burning. Leptin is the chemical that tells your brain when you're full, when it should start burning up calories and, by extension, when it should create energy for your body to use. It triggers a series of messages and responses that starts in the hypothalamus and ends in the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland controls the way your body stores and uses energy.

During sleep, leptin levels increase, telling your brain you have plenty of energy for the time being and there's no need to trigger the feeling of hunger or the burning of calories. When you don't get enough sleep, you end up with too little leptin in your body, which, through a series of steps, makes your brain think you don't have enough energy for your needs. So your brain tells you you're hungry, even though you don't actually need food at that time, and it takes steps to store the calories you eat as fat so you'll have enough energy the next time you need it. The decrease in leptin brought on by sleep deprivation can result in a constant feeling of hunger and a general slow-down of your metabolism.

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The other hormone found to be related to sleep and weight is ghrelin. The purpose of ghrelin is basically the exact opposite of leptin: It tells your brain when you need to eat, when it should stop burning calories and when it should store energy as fat. During sleep, levels of ghrelin decrease, because sleep requires far less energy than being awake does. People who don't sleep enough end up with too much ghrelin in their system, so the body thinks it's hungry and it needs more calories, and it stops burning those calories because it thinks there's a shortage.

Some scientists hypothesize that these hormonal changes that occur during sleep are the result of an evolutionary process that ended up with humans who could survive the food shortages of winters. Traditionally speaking, winters have long nights and little food, and summers have short nights and an abundance of food. With shorter nights comes less sleep, less leptin and more ghrelin, making the body eat as much as possible and save those calories for the long winter ahead. With winter comes more sleep, meaning more leptin and less ghrelin, both of which tell the body it's time to burn those calories it stored during the summer.

Sleep deprivation has also been found to increase levels of stress hormones and resistance to insulin, both of which also contribute to weight gain. Insulin resistance can also lead to type 2 diabetes.

The National Sleep Foundation offers the following tips to help make sure you get enough sleep for your body to function optimally:

  • Try to aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
  • Increase your exercise level, but try not to exercise within three hours of your bed time.
  • Don't ingest caffeine or alcohol near your bed time -- caffeine can keep you awake, and alcohol can disrupt the normal stages of your sleep.

For more information on sleep, body weight and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

HealthDiabetesSleepHealthAging ProcessHow do my sleep habits change as I age?HealthSleep BasicsCan melatonin help you sleep better?HealthSleep BasicsSleep PicturesHealthSleep JournalSleep ScheduleHealthSleep DisordersDangers of Sleep ApneaHealthSleep JournalSleep DeprivationHealthSleep DisordersDo you need sleep drugs?HealthSleep BasicsThe Get Better Sleep QuizHealthSleep DisordersHow Sleep Deprivation WorksHealthSleep JournalI Can't Sleep Because I'm Worried About Not SleepingHealthSleep BasicsIs sleep that important?HealthSleep BasicsAvoiding Sleep DeprivationHealthSleep JournalSleep and SmokingHealthSleep JournalSleep and AgingHealthAlternative MedicineNatural Sleep AidsHealthSweating and OdorSweating While SleepingHealthBaby CareBaby Won't Sleep? 5 Tips From a Baby Sleep CoachHealthModern Medical TreatmentsSleep Apnea TreatmentsHealthSleep BasicsHow Sleep Consolidates Our MemoriesHealthSleep BasicsHow are sleep and heart disease related?HealthSleep BasicsWhy do we sleep?HealthTeenage HealthHelping Sleep-deprived TeensHealthSkin Cleansing TipsIs it bad to sleep with my makeup on?HealthOsteoarthritisHow does sleep affect osteoarthritis?HealthSleep BasicsWill you die if you never sleep?HealthSleep DisordersDoes sleep deprivation lead to risky decisions?HealthSleep BasicsWhat Happens When We Sleep?HealthSleep JournalCreating the Right Sleep EnvironmentHealthSleep Basics5 Effects of Sleep DeprivationHealthSleep Disorders9 Most Common Sleep DisordersHealthSleep JournalSleep In the Modern WorldHealthBaby CareSafe Sleeping For Your BabyHealthSleep DisordersWhy Some People Can't Sleep Without a FanHealthSleep BasicsWhy Socks Help You Sleep BetterHealthSleep BasicsDo Weighted Blankets Help With Sleep?HealthBaby CareMore Babies Are Sleeping in Boxes — and That's a Good ThingHealthSleep BasicsWill we learn to live without sleep?HealthSleep DisordersDoes Sleeping On Your Side Stop Snoring?HealthHeadacheHow do my sleep and rest patterns affect my headaches?HealthSleep DisordersHow Do You Sleep When Sailing Solo for 4,000 Miles?HealthSleep BasicsCan Military Meditation Techniques Help You Fall Asleep Fast?HealthSleep JournalMany of My Sleep Problems Are Due to Bad HabitsHealthSleep Basics5 Health Risks of Too Little SleepHealthSleep BasicsCan you die if you don’t sleep?HealthSleep Disorders10 Signs You May Be Sleep DeprivedHealthSleep BasicsYes, You Can Catch Up On Your Sleep!HealthSleep DisordersWhy Are You So Tired? 5 Most Common Sleep MistakesHealthWeight LossWhy do I lose weight while I sleep?HealthGERDHow do sleep and rest patterns affect GERD?HealthSleep BasicsHow many hours of sleep do you really need?HealthSleep BasicsOne Simple Way to Get More Sleep: Lower the ThermostatHealthSleep BasicsHow to Fall AsleepHealthSleep JournalTime For a New Mattress?HealthSleep JournalSecrets of the Siesta and High-Tech MattressesHealthSleep DisordersCan You Fall Asleep With Your Eyes Open?HealthSleep DisordersWhy Do People Fall Asleep in Movie Theaters?
HealthDiabetesSleepHealthAging ProcessHow do my sleep habits change as I age?HealthSleep BasicsCan melatonin help you sleep better?HealthSleep BasicsSleep PicturesHealthSleep JournalSleep ScheduleHealthSleep DisordersDangers of Sleep ApneaHealthSleep JournalSleep DeprivationHealthSleep DisordersDo you need sleep drugs?HealthSleep BasicsThe Get Better Sleep QuizHealthSleep DisordersHow Sleep Deprivation WorksHealthSleep JournalI Can't Sleep Because I'm Worried About Not SleepingHealthSleep BasicsIs sleep that important?HealthSleep BasicsAvoiding Sleep DeprivationHealthSleep JournalSleep and SmokingHealthSleep JournalSleep and AgingHealthAlternative MedicineNatural Sleep AidsHealthSweating and OdorSweating While SleepingHealthBaby CareBaby Won't Sleep? 5 Tips From a Baby Sleep CoachHealthModern Medical TreatmentsSleep Apnea TreatmentsHealthSleep BasicsHow Sleep Consolidates Our MemoriesHealthSleep BasicsHow are sleep and heart disease related?HealthSleep BasicsWhy do we sleep?HealthTeenage HealthHelping Sleep-deprived TeensHealthSkin Cleansing TipsIs it bad to sleep with my makeup on?HealthOsteoarthritisHow does sleep affect osteoarthritis?HealthSleep BasicsWill you die if you never sleep?HealthSleep DisordersDoes sleep deprivation lead to risky decisions?HealthSleep BasicsWhat Happens When We Sleep?HealthSleep JournalCreating the Right Sleep EnvironmentHealthSleep Basics5 Effects of Sleep DeprivationHealthSleep Disorders9 Most Common Sleep DisordersHealthSleep JournalSleep In the Modern WorldHealthBaby CareSafe Sleeping For Your BabyHealthSleep DisordersWhy Some People Can't Sleep Without a FanHealthSleep BasicsWhy Socks Help You Sleep BetterHealthSleep BasicsDo Weighted Blankets Help With Sleep?HealthBaby CareMore Babies Are Sleeping in Boxes — and That's a Good ThingHealthSleep BasicsWill we learn to live without sleep?HealthSleep DisordersDoes Sleeping On Your Side Stop Snoring?HealthHeadacheHow do my sleep and rest patterns affect my headaches?HealthSleep DisordersHow Do You Sleep When Sailing Solo for 4,000 Miles?HealthSleep BasicsCan Military Meditation Techniques Help You Fall Asleep Fast?HealthSleep JournalMany of My Sleep Problems Are Due to Bad HabitsHealthSleep Basics5 Health Risks of Too Little SleepHealthSleep BasicsCan you die if you don’t sleep?HealthSleep Disorders10 Signs You May Be Sleep DeprivedHealthSleep BasicsYes, You Can Catch Up On Your Sleep!HealthSleep DisordersWhy Are You So Tired? 5 Most Common Sleep MistakesHealthWeight LossWhy do I lose weight while I sleep?HealthGERDHow do sleep and rest patterns affect GERD?HealthSleep BasicsHow many hours of sleep do you really need?HealthSleep BasicsOne Simple Way to Get More Sleep: Lower the ThermostatHealthSleep BasicsHow to Fall AsleepHealthSleep JournalTime For a New Mattress?HealthSleep JournalSecrets of the Siesta and High-Tech MattressesHealthSleep DisordersCan You Fall Asleep With Your Eyes Open?HealthSleep DisordersWhy Do People Fall Asleep in Movie Theaters?

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HealthDiabetesSleepHealthAging ProcessHow do my sleep habits change as I age?HealthSleep BasicsCan melatonin help you sleep better?HealthSleep BasicsSleep PicturesHealthSleep JournalSleep ScheduleHealthSleep DisordersDangers of Sleep ApneaHealthSleep JournalSleep DeprivationHealthSleep DisordersDo you need sleep drugs?HealthSleep BasicsThe Get Better Sleep QuizHealthSleep DisordersHow Sleep Deprivation WorksHealthSleep JournalI Can't Sleep Because I'm Worried About Not SleepingHealthSleep BasicsIs sleep that important?HealthSleep BasicsAvoiding Sleep DeprivationHealthSleep JournalSleep and SmokingHealthSleep JournalSleep and AgingHealthAlternative MedicineNatural Sleep AidsHealthSweating and OdorSweating While SleepingHealthBaby CareBaby Won't Sleep? 5 Tips From a Baby Sleep CoachHealthModern Medical TreatmentsSleep Apnea TreatmentsHealthSleep BasicsHow Sleep Consolidates Our MemoriesHealthSleep BasicsHow are sleep and heart disease related?HealthSleep BasicsWhy do we sleep?HealthTeenage HealthHelping Sleep-deprived TeensHealthSkin Cleansing TipsIs it bad to sleep with my makeup on?HealthOsteoarthritisHow does sleep affect osteoarthritis?HealthSleep BasicsWill you die if you never sleep?HealthSleep DisordersDoes sleep deprivation lead to risky decisions?HealthSleep BasicsWhat Happens When We Sleep?HealthSleep JournalCreating the Right Sleep EnvironmentHealthSleep Basics5 Effects of Sleep DeprivationHealthSleep Disorders9 Most Common Sleep DisordersHealthSleep JournalSleep In the Modern WorldHealthBaby CareSafe Sleeping For Your BabyHealthSleep DisordersWhy Some People Can't Sleep Without a FanHealthSleep BasicsWhy Socks Help You Sleep BetterHealthSleep BasicsDo Weighted Blankets Help With Sleep?HealthBaby CareMore Babies Are Sleeping in Boxes — and That's a Good ThingHealthSleep BasicsWill we learn to live without sleep?HealthSleep DisordersDoes Sleeping On Your Side Stop Snoring?HealthHeadacheHow do my sleep and rest patterns affect my headaches?HealthSleep DisordersHow Do You Sleep When Sailing Solo for 4,000 Miles?HealthSleep BasicsCan Military Meditation Techniques Help You Fall Asleep Fast?HealthSleep JournalMany of My Sleep Problems Are Due to Bad HabitsHealthSleep Basics5 Health Risks of Too Little SleepHealthSleep BasicsCan you die if you don’t sleep?HealthSleep Disorders10 Signs You May Be Sleep DeprivedHealthSleep BasicsYes, You Can Catch Up On Your Sleep!HealthSleep DisordersWhy Are You So Tired? 5 Most Common Sleep MistakesHealthWeight LossWhy do I lose weight while I sleep?HealthGERDHow do sleep and rest patterns affect GERD?HealthSleep BasicsHow many hours of sleep do you really need?HealthSleep BasicsOne Simple Way to Get More Sleep: Lower the ThermostatHealthSleep BasicsHow to Fall AsleepHealthSleep JournalTime For a New Mattress?HealthSleep JournalSecrets of the Siesta and High-Tech MattressesHealthSleep DisordersCan You Fall Asleep With Your Eyes Open?HealthSleep DisordersWhy Do People Fall Asleep in Movie Theaters?