When focusing on losing or maintaining weight, it is common for people to think of two things and for weight loss plans to focus only on these two things. You may already know what they are- diet and exercise right? To lose weight, we need to eat less and move more. Most plans focus on specific foods to eat, specific amounts, prescribed types and amounts of exercise. But is that enough? More and more, research is showing that there are other factors that influence weight loss and weight gain, even when you are eating right and exercising. One of these missing pieces is something most of us don't get enough of- SLEEP!
Physiologically, lack of adequate sleep does a number on you. It increases the hormone that signals you are hungry while simultaneously decreasing the hormone that signals that you are full. In addition to this, it increases insulin resistance and has a negative impact on glucose regulation. Both of these are important in regulating body weight. There are changes in how your brain reacts to certain stimuli, which ultimately influences your behavior. In addition to this, when you are sleep deprived the weight that is lost is less likely to be fat mass than when you are getting adequate sleep. I'm sure you are aware, we aren't looking to lose just any weight, we are looking to lose fat. Even following the same diet, those with higher quality sleep lose more fat than those with lower quality sleep.
Brain regions responsible for reward are more active when viewing food (particularly unhealthy foods and high calorie foods) when you are sleep deprived. This means you are more motivated to eat those foods when you have not gotten enough quality sleep. Not only do people eat more when they are tired, but they specifically eat more unhealthy foods and snack more throughout the day. Being awake longer also gives you more time during the day to eat. Not only do those who get inadequate sleep choose more unhealthy foods to eat while sleep deprived, this also extends to buying habits. When not getting adequate sleep, people will tend to buy more unhealthy foods than when they are well rested which makes more unhealthy food available (and more likely to be eaten) as long as that food is in the house, regardless of if sleep has improved. As expected, these difficulties with following a healthy diet when not getting enough sleep is more pronounced in people who have a harder time avoiding unhealthy foods to begin with. Lastly, lack of sleep effects your energy levels and can mean you exercise less and at lower intensity than when well rested.
What Can We Do? The first part of course is obvious. As much as possible, try to improve your sleep habits. Try to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night (in this case, more actually doesn't seem to be better. There's evidence that 9 or more hours of sleep can be detrimental in some ways.) In addition to getting enough sleep, work to improve sleep quality. Some general suggestions to improve your sleep hygiene include:
avoid caffeine after 2pm
Avoid alcohol before bedtime (alcohol may help you get to sleep faster, but at the expense of reduced sleep quality. You do not get as much deep, restful sleep with alcohol in your system)
Give enough time between working out and going to bed, except
Yoga, of the right type, can be beneficial prior to bed
Dim the lights in anticipation of heading to bed. This signals to your brain that sleep is coming, and ensures you are producing melatonin.
Avoid bright screens. Bright screens, like other sources of bright light, can disrupt your body's production of melatonin.
Take a bath, bonus for lavender scented candles or bath products. Your body associates a drop in body temperature with bedtime, so when your body temperature drops after your bath it can help signal bedtime and also lavender scent has been shown to help.
Play calming music before bed.
Have a consistent sleep and wake time- even on weekends.
Say no to sleep medicines as much as possible. Use of these has been associated with lack of weight loss.
Of course, sometimes life doesn't allow us to get as much sleep as we'd like, even with good sleep hygiene. When that happens first realize that it's OK to prioritize sleep over exercise. You can exercise for less time at a greater intensity with great effects, making more time for sleep. You can also make some changes to help counteract the ways that lack of sleep can lead to poor choices, for example make a shopping list before going to the grocery store when not hungry and sticking to it, and also pre plan what you are going to eat for the day. The more you plan ahead, the less susceptible you will be to making impulsive choices when you aren't at your best.
Finally, it is also important to note that your diet and exercise also effect your sleep. The effects aren't one way- staying active and eating healthy help with getting more, better quality sleep. Making sure to focus on all of the pieces can help you see more success.
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