Weight Loss, Sleep & How to Get More of Each

Created by Rachel Raymond, Dietetic Intern

Ever wonder why you’re not losing weight when it seems you’ve been doing everything right? Today I’m going to cover a topic that many don’t realize affects their weight loss goals so much: sleep. After that, I’ll go over lots of tips on how to make your sleep more restful so you can achieve your weight loss goals.

Sleep Recommendations

The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep each night[1]. Unfortunately, most Americans are not reaching that goal. In the 1960’s, US adults averaged 8-9 hours of sleep each night[1]. By 2008, US adults were averaging 6.6 hours each night[1]. In 2015, US adults reported averaging less than 6 hours of sleep each night[2]. Anyway, you get the gist. Americans are sleeping less now than they ever have before.

Impact of sleep on weight loss

Evidence suggests that people who get less sleep are more likely to be overweight. We’re going to investigate a couple of studies to see how much of an influence sleep has on weight.

One study followed overweight/obese women who were participating in a randomized clinical trial of a weight-loss program. The study’s design was to determine whether their sleep score (Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index) or sleep duration had anything to do with their weight loss success[1].

This study included 245 participants. The women’s sleep scores were recorded at the beginning of the weight loss program and at 6 months after the start date[1]. The study concluded that higher sleep quality and quantity increases the likelihood of successful weight loss by 33%[1].

The takeaway message from this study is this: We are 33% less effective at losing weight when we’re not getting enough sleep. 

Effect of sleep deprivation on hormones

Sleep affects ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates hunger. Leptin is a hormone that helps regulate food intake. During weight loss, leptin levels decrease and ghrelin levels increase resulting in greater hunger[4]. In one study, men were only allowed to sleep 4 hours each night for 6 nights[4]. Their ghrelin-to-leptin ratio increased by 70%. This resulted in greater hunger and a stronger desire for calorie-dense foods such as cake and potatoes[4]. 

Another study noted that those who were restricted to 5 and a half hours of sleep each night ended up eating 45 to 397 more calories from snacks daily[3]. It was also noted that the snacks eaten between 7 PM and 7 AM were higher in carbohydrates than other snacks[3].

The takeaway message from these studies is this: A lack of sleep causes our hunger hormone to increase which leads to eating more snacks and less weight loss!

Sleep quantity affects kids too

Researchers have observed similar effects in children. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are more likely to pack on some extra pounds if they aren’t getting enough sleep. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, sleep requirements vary by age[5]. Follow the chart below to see how much sleep your child should be getting[5]:

Newborn infants: 0 to 2 months 12 to 18 hours (includes naps)
Infants: 4 to 12 months12 to 16 hours (includes naps)
Toddlers: 1 to 2 years11 to 14 hours (includes naps)
Preschoolers: 3 to 5 years10 to 13 hours (includes naps)
School-age children: 6 to 12 years9 to 12 hours
Teens: 13 to 18 years8 to 10 hours
Adults: 18 and older7 to 9 hours

Tips for better sleep

Since many of us are struggling to get enough sleep, we’ve listed some ideas below from the Sleep Foundation to help improve your sleep[6].

  • Create a sleep-inducing bedroom
  • Optimize your sleep schedule
  • Craft a pre-bedtime routine
  • Foster pro-sleep habits during the day

Now, those sound great, but how do we follow those tips? The Sleep Foundation has provided specific actions that we can take to follow these tips for better sleep[6]:

Create a sleep-inducing bedroom.

Having a relaxing and non-distracting environment will help you to fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up more well-rested. Some of the ways we can do that include[6]:

  • Using a high-performance mattress and pillow for greater comfort and support.
  • Choosing quality bedding for maintaining a comfortable temperature during the night.
  • Avoiding light disruption that can throw off our circadian rhythm by using blackout curtains to block light.
  • Cultivating peace and quiet by keeping noise to a minimum. This can be done by using headphones, earplugs or a fan to block out noise.
  • Finding a comfortable temperature so that you can stay asleep all night. Studies suggest that sleeping in a room that is around 65 degrees is ideal[6].
  • Introducing a pleasant scent such as lavender oil can be refreshing and soothing.

Optimize your sleep schedule

Having a set schedule will help your body to get into a rhythm of when to go to sleep. To begin making a sleep schedule part of your routine, try these strategies[6]:

  • Set an alarm to wake-up at a set time. This will help your body adjust to a set schedule. Use the alarm even on weekends or days off to keep the same schedule so that it won’t be so difficult to get up for work on Mondays.
  • Schedule time for sleep so that you can actually get enough rest. If we don’t budget enough time for sleep, it will be impossible for us to get the right amount of rest.
  • Be cautious about taking naps. Naps can make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. If you do take a nap, the best time to nap is shortly after lunch for about 20 minutes.
  • Adjust your schedule gradually so that your body will adjust. If you’re used to going to bed at 11 PM, maybe try for 10:45 instead, and gradually go to sleep earlier over time for your body to adjust.  

Craft a pre-bedtime routine

If you have a difficult time falling asleep, then it’s important to consider what you’re doing before bed that may be distracting. Developing some of the following habits will help you form a better nighttime routine[6]:

  • Winding down for 30 minutes or more by reading, doing some low-impact yoga, listening to soothing music, or meditating. These will get you in the right mood for sleep.
  • Dimming the lights. Avoiding bright light will help you transition to bed and help your body to produce melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.
  • Disconnecting from devices including tablets, cell phones, laptops and televisions. Not only can these things keep our minds racing, the light can also suppress the body’s natural production of melatonin. Try to stop using these devices 30 minutes before going to bed.  

Foster pro-sleep habits during the day

Certain activities that we do during the day will influence how well we sleep at night. Some things that you can do throughout the day for better sleep include[6]:

  • Getting out in the sun. A dose of sunlight early in the day can help our circadian rhythm to normalize. If you live in a place where that’s not really an option all-year-round, talk to your doctor about using light therapy.
  • Exercise! There are many reasons for exercise, but if none of those have convinced you, then maybe this will. The changes that exercise initiates in the body’s energy use and temperature can promote solid sleep. Just make sure to avoid more intense exercises at night since that may affect your ability to settle down before bed.
  • Keep an eye on your caffeine intake. You probably already know which drinks have caffeine and that you should avoid those later in the day, but did you know that dark chocolate has caffeine in it too? One 1 oz square contains 24 mg which is about the same as a cup of black or green tea and about half the amount of your average 16 oz bottle of soda. Monitor your chocolate intake at night in addition to the usual drinks for better sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol naturally induces drowsiness, so many people turn to it before bedtime. However, alcohol can affect sleep quality, so it’s best to avoid it leading-up to bedtime.  
  • Don’t smoke and do try to avoid secondhand smoke. Any exposure to smoke, including secondhand smoke, can cause many different sleep issues. Avoid it as much as possible.
  • Don’t hangout on your bed. Sometimes it can be tempting to sit on the bed while you’re working on your laptop, studying, or doing other activities, but this creates a mental association with your bed and working. To have the most relaxing sleep, avoid these types of activities in bed.

[1] Relationship between sleep quality and quantity and weight loss in women participating in a weight-loss intervention trial

[2] Associations between sleep loss and increased risk of obesity and diabetes

[3] Sleep curtailment is accompanied by increased intake of calories from snacks

[4] Brief communication: sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite

[5] How sleep habits affect healthy weight

[6] Healthy sleep tips

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