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A Lack of Sleep Can Sabotage your Weight Loss Plans

A Lack of Sleep Can Sabotage your Weight Loss Plans

We’ve all heard that it’s important to get a good night’s sleep of 7-9 hours.  But how seriously do we take that advice?  Too often, it seems that late night or early morning work is more important.  As a college professor, I know I would often burn the midnight oil or get up at the crack of dawn in order to prepare for my next lecture.  Cutting your sleep short once in a while is not a huge problem.  But if it becomes a common practice, it can do a great deal of harm.  One type of harm is sabotaging your weight loss plans.  Today we’re going to look at three reasons that we have trouble losing weight when we’re short on rest.

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Brain Changes

Have you ever been woken up in the middle of the night to deal with something urgent?  I know that has happened to me more times than I could count.  I’ve had my share of emergencies requiring a parent, a nurse, or a chaperone at odd hours.  I’ve also been awoken suddenly by the barking of a protective family pet.  And then there those intentional choices to forego sleep in favor of something deemed more important.

What I didn’t realize were the changes that were taking place in my brain due to my lack of adequate Zzzs.  The first change was that the frontal lobe of the brain was becoming dulled and not working as it should.  The frontal lobe is needed for decision-making, thinking, studying, planning, and other higher level functions.  When we don’t get enough sleep, it’s almost like the frontal lobe doesn’t fully recharge and wake-up.  You can see this is going to be a problem if we need to do any thinking or decision-making throughout the day, which of course we all need to do.  Even on vacation, we have to decide how we want to relax and what we want for dessert.

The other change happening in the brain is that the reward system (primarily the cortico–basal ganglia–thalamic loop) kicks into gear.  So, at the same time our frontal lobe is on vacation, the reward system is on the prowl for anything that makes it feel good.  That means that even with the best intentions, we are more likely to give into food cravings when short on sleep.  We’re more likely to choose high carbohydrate snacks, to snack late at night, and in general crave and eat junk!

Hormone Fluctuation

Several of our hormones get out of whack when we don’t get enough sleep too.  Our hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin work against us feeling satisfied.  I’ve discussed these hormones in a previous post, you can check out called Protein, Protein, Never Eat a Meal or Leave Home Without It!  In a nutshell, ghrelin causes us to get hungry and leptin helps us know when we are satisfied.  So, in order to stop eating, we want low ghrelin levels and high leptin levels.  Of course, that’s not what happens when we don’t sleep enough.  The opposite occurs and we have high ghrelin (telling us we are hungry) and low leptin (not telling us we are satisfied) so we keep eating.

Another hormone influenced by a lack of sleep is cortisol.  Cortisol is our stress hormone and we need it if we ever need to fight off a wild animal or run for our lives.  That might be exaggerating just a tad.  We need it for other things beside managing sudden stress and you can read more about there here if you would like.  For today’s purposes, we just need to realize that sleep deprivation causes cortisol to rise.  And high cortisol levels cause our bodies to conserve energy and store more fat.  Obviously, that’s not going to help much with our weight loss efforts.

The fourth hormone that is altered by inadequate sleep is insulin.  Insulin is needed by your body to move sugar, carbohydrates, and other foods into the cells where it can be used for energy.  When we are sleep deprived, insulin becomes less sensitive, which means it doesn’t work as well.  The reason this is a problem for us is that the body ends up storing food calories as fat.

Behavior Influence

The third area of concern with lack of sleep is how our behavior is influenced by how much sleep we get on a regular basis.  When we don’t have enough energy, we tend to search for energy all day.  There’s too ways we go about doing this.  First, we can give ourselves a boost with caffeine, a variety of energy boost drinks or high sugar foods.  While a little caffeine won’t hurt most of us, pumping it in all day is likely to make you jittery and can cause other problems such as a high heart rate or high blood pressure.  Too much sugar may temporarily give you an energy boost but it will give you many calories that are going to stick around.

The second thing we can do to increase our energy levels is to move less.  In a sense, if we don’t demand anything of our bodies, we won’t have unmet need.  How likely are you to exercise when you’re exhausted before you start?  It’s not very likely at all.  So, the combination of boosting energy with sugar and caffeine, and not moving any more than is necessary once again is sabotaging your weight loss efforts.

Visual Summary

The moral of the story is for us all to realize how much lack of sleeps hurts us and to get enough of it on a daily basis.  Only you can control how many hours you sleep.  Make every effort to get enough sleep, to allow your brain and hormones to function properly, and to give your weight loss efforts the best chance for success possible!

Reflection Questions

1.  How much sleep to you get on an average night (be honest)?

2.  If you’re not getting at least 6 hours per night, what can you do to help improve this for yourself?

3.  Is there someone else you need to ask for help with this problem?  Sometimes we just can’t do it alone and help is a great idea!


Home Health Network.  What Does Cortisol Do?

Mayo Clinic.  Is Too Little Sleep a Cause of Weight Gain?

O’Connor, A. (2013). How Sleep Loss Adds to Weight Gain.

The Brain Made Simple:  Frontal Lobe.

WebMD. Sleep More, Weigh Less.

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