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The Surprising Connection Between Sleep and Weight Loss, Revealed

sleep and weight loss

Summer is here, and many of us may be focused on trying to shed some extra pounds before our beach vacations. You might be counting calories, drinking lots of water, and hitting the gym every day. But did you know that there could be another culprit lurking in the darkness that’s making it harder for you to lose weight? Sleep deprivation can be a serious hindrance when you’re trying to lose weight. Read on to learn more about the connection between sleep and weight loss and how you can improve your sleep to trim down your waistline.

Poor Impulse Control

You might be surprised to learn that one of the biggest connections between poor sleep and weight gain has to do with impulse control. When you’re sleep-deprived, the decision-making centers of your brain aren’t as active. This means that, much like when you’re drunk, you tend to make poor decisions more often when you’re tired.

If you’ve ever tried to stick to a diet, you know how hard it can be to control those eating impulses. As much as you tell yourself you’re enjoying your veggie wrap, your brain is screaming that all you want is a whole pizza with extra cheese. When you’re tired, you’ll have a hard time clamping down on those impulses and sticking to your diet. 

Increased Need for Rewards 

Unfortunately, poor impulse control is not the only factor impacting your junk food cravings when you’re tired. When your brain gets sleep-deprived, it looks for more dopamine and serotonin hits. These two neurotransmitters are linked to happiness and satisfaction, and we associate them with the reward centers of our brain. 

When you eat sweet or carb-heavy foods, your brain experiences a rush of those positive neurotransmitters. Because your brain is seeking those rewards, when you’re tired, you’re more likely to crave unhealthy foods. Combined with your decreased impulse control, this can make it all but impossible to keep your hands off the sugary snacks.

More Carb Cravings 

There’s actually another reason your brain craves carbs more when you’re tired, aside from the dopamine rush they provide. Your body actually uses carbohydrates to produce energy to keep your body running. Unless you’re on the keto diet or another extremely low-carb diet, carbs represent your primary source of energy.

It makes sense, then, that when your body is lacking in sleep, it looks for other sources of energy. Carbs provide a burst of energy that can fuel you through those sleep-deprived days. Unfortunately, all the excess sugars from carb-rich foods get stored in your body and converted to fat cells.

Larger Portion Size Tendencies

You might be surprised to learn that when you’re tired, you tend to go for larger portion sizes than when you’re well-rested. Portion sizes are often misunderstood anyway, especially in America. What we would identify as reasonable portion sizes is actually about three times as much as we should be eating in one sitting.

When you’re tired, your brain doesn’t have the resources to push back against those built-in misconceptions. You’re more likely to load your plate with food since your brain is looking for anything to keep it going. Larger portion sizes mean larger calorie intakes, which counteract your weight loss goals faster than anything.

More Opportunities to Eat

Another very simple reason for the importance of sleep for weight loss is that when you sleep less, you have more time to eat. During a normal day, we make more than 225 food decisions, and it can be enormously difficult to make good decisions every one of those times. There are 225 opportunities to choose to eat a candy bar or pick the pasta instead of the salad every day.

The longer you’re awake, the more opportunities you have to make a food decision that isn’t smart. If you’re up late, you might be tempted to give in to that impulse to snack just a little bit before bed. While one or two bad decisions won’t ruin you, making more of those bad food decisions can lead to a pattern of weight gain. 

Higher Cortisol Levels 

In addition to dopamine and serotonin, one of the primary neurotransmitters zipping around in our brains is cortisol. Unlike serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with happiness, cortisol is a stress hormone. Our bodies produce more cortisol when we’re unhappy or stressed, as well as when we’re running short on sleep.

Having high cortisol levels can do a whole number of unpleasant things to your body, including making it harder for you to lose weight. Your body tends not to break down fat as easily when your cortisol levels are high. Making sure you get enough sleep and reducing stressors in your life can help to ensure that you’re not carrying extra pounds.

Neurotransmitter Levels 

Dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol aren’t the only neurotransmitters that keep your brain functioning as it should. In fact, there are two neurotransmitters thought to be linked to your appetite: ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin contributes to you feeling hungry, and leptin signals your brain that you’re full.

The trouble is that when you go without enough sleep, your body may not be able to regulate these neurotransmitters properly. Your ghrelin levels may go up and your leptin levels may go down when you don’t get enough sleep. This leaves you feeling hungrier and less satiated after meals, which can lead to an increase in calorie intake.

Less Satiety 

We mentioned satiety, but what is it and how does it impact your weight loss journey?  Satiety is the sensation you get that tells you to stop eating; it’s that “full” feeling you get towards the end of the meal. It can take your brain up to ten minutes to process satiety sensations, which is why many weight loss tips recommend eating for a little while, pausing for ten minutes, and then continuing to eat if you’re still hungry.

Unfortunately, when your leptin levels drop, it takes longer for you to get that feeling of satiety. You may feel like you have to eat more to fill up or you may get hungry more frequently. This makes it harder to stick to your calorie counts, especially when you’re already short on impulse control.

Lower Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin is a chemical in our bodies that helps us to break down sugar and starch and convert it into energy. You may be familiar with this substance because of the role it plays in diabetes management. Most people’s bodies naturally produce insulin, but the amount of sleep you’re getting (or not getting) can change the amount of insulin you’re producing.

Within just a few days of going without sleep, your body’s ability to produce insulin starts declining. Insulin sensitivity – your body’s ability to use insulin and convert sugar to energy – decreases, and your blood sugar can go up. Not only will this put you at greater risk of diabetes, but it can also contribute to weight gain. 

Disrupted Circadian Rhythms

Did you know that your body operates on its own unique schedule that determines when you wake up, sleep, eat, and more? This is called your circadian rhythm, and it’s based in part on signals from the world around you and signals from within your own body. For instance, many health professionals advise that you avoid blue light in the evenings because it signals your body that it’s time to wake up and get going.

Staying in sync with your circadian rhythms can be an important way to keep your body healthiest. When you go without sleep, your circadian rhythms get thrown off, which throws your whole system into chaos. You may not receive the appropriate signals about when to eat or sleep, which can cause you to gain weight and have more trouble sleeping.

Less Energy for Exercise

Of course, the other half of the weight loss coin is exercise, and going without sleep can make that harder, too. How many times have you woke up early for a run, shut off your alarm, and rolled back over to get some extra sleep instead? Have you ever skipped a workout because you were too tired to deal with it?

Sleep is one of your body’s main sources of energy, and when you go without it, you don’t have much steam. You may have a harder time pushing yourself during your time at the gym. Or you may never make it to the gym at all, opting instead to get a nap that, while important, doesn’t burn any calories.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

So now that we know all the ways sleep deprivation can interfere with your weight loss plans, let’s talk about how much sleep you actually need. Most healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. But you may need more or less, depending on your particular schedule and body.

Pay attention to how you feel after getting different amounts of sleep and how long you sleep on days when you don’t have to set an alarm. Do you wake up after seven hours feeling well-rested, or do you have to sleep for ten hours on weekends before you feel energized? You may want to consider using a sleep tracker to help you keep up with this information at first. 

Keep a Regular Sleep Schedule

One of the best things you can do to improve your sleep quality is to keep a regular sleep schedule. Those circadian rhythms we discussed can adjust, but they want to run on routine schedules. If you constantly change what time you go to bed and get up (such as on the weekends), your body won’t know when it’s supposed to sleep or wake up.

Try to set a bedtime for yourself, and stick to that as closely as you reasonably can. Make sure it’s early enough that you can get as much sleep as you need each night. You’ll wake up each morning feeling more rested, refreshed, and ready to take on your day. 

Maintain Sleep Hygiene

How much time do you spend lying in bed scrolling through your phone or watching TV? While it can be easy to get into these habits, they can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule. Your brain learns that the bed is where you check social media and play games on your phone, rather than where you sleep and recover. 

Make it a point to leave your phone out of your bed, and avoid watching TV while you’re in bed. Ideally, your bed should only be used for two things: sleeping and sex. This will train your brain to expect that, when you get in bed, it’s time to go to sleep, rather than think about the latest episode of The Crown

Watch What You Eat (and Drink)

If you’re trying to lose weight, you probably know that eating after a certain time of night isn’t a good idea. But did you know that this will interfere with more than just your weight loss goals? Eating too late can throw off your circadian rhythms, making it harder for you to fall asleep. 

You should also try to avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine too close to bedtime. Anyone who’s ever had coffee just a little too late will be familiar with the havoc caffeine can wreak on your sleep schedule. But you may be surprised to learn that alcohol can also mess with your sleep cycle, preventing you from getting into the deeper stages of REM sleep.

Discover the Connection Between Sleep and Weight Loss

When you’re trying to lose weight, your attention may be focused on things like exercise, diet, and water intake. And while these are certainly important, making sure you get plenty of sleep is just as critical. Going without sleep can make it difficult for you to curb cravings and drop fat, not to mention do your best in the gym. 

If you’d like to learn more about the connection between sleep and weight loss, check out the rest of our site at Lyf Fit. We have resources for anyone looking to live a healthier, fitter lifestyle. Check out our articles about working out to discover more ways to make your gym routine harder for you.