Does lack of sleep contribute to obesity?

Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Nutrition & Dietetics

Not getting enough sleep will work against weight loss efforts, and can cause obesity in several ways. First, when chronically fatigued or tired you tend to crave sweets. This is because your body and mind is in need of a stimulant, something to wake you up. When in reality what you need most is a nap. Second, when you don’t get enough sleep your body produces more ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hunger stimulating hormone that has been shown to be over fifteen percent higher in people who have gotten as little as two hours less sleep.

Sleep better to lose weight? - You bet! I have known many women doing it all- that just simply need to sleep better and longer for a couple of months before the fat burning switch will turn on in response to all their other good efforts. This was true even for me!

Almost every day I hear from women frustrated from working so hard with diet, exercise and self-care, but only get 4-5 hours of sleep a night! No wonder the weight doesn’t come off- they are in survival mode, storing calories and waiting for disaster on a primitive level.

In these scenarios I ask women to address what they are not doing- which is getting good sleep and feeling rejuvenated in the morning. I encourage them to identify how important sleep really is! We work together helping them to prioritize getting back to a good 8 hours nightly, and the benefits come sooner or later in most cases when the rest of the pieces of the puzzle are also in place for healthy weight loss goals.

8 hours is great for most, some may need a bit more in the dark winter months and then a little less in the summer. Talk to your health care provider about your sleep and metabolism if it concerns you, there is help medically and naturally!

Research shows that the hormones that help regulate appetite are affected by a lack of sleep. This effect of increased appetite could lead to overeating. Over time, this may contribute to obesity, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Importantly, poor sleep also seems to contribute to cardiovascular disease in other ways – for example, by causing inflammation. If you are experiencing sleep problems, speak with your physician to identify causes and possible treatments. Not only may you find it easier to maintain your goal weight, you will also be benefitting your heart health.
Not getting enough sleep has been linked to weight gain and obesity. Research from the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that study participants who reported sleeping less than seven hours had a higher average body mass index (BMI) and were more likely to become obese than those who slept more. These observations support earlier research that found a relationship between sleep duration and obesity.

The reasons why inadequate sleep may lead to weight gain are not fully understood. There seems to be a connection between sleep loss and hormonal changes that affect appetite and satiety. Several studies have found that limiting sleep results in changes in the appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin, and increases hunger as well as cravings for high carbohydrate sweets and salty foods.

Another possible reason for weight gain may be increased stress levels, which may make it more difficult to overcome negative thought patterns and develop effective coping strategies surrounding food and eating. This may encourage poor eating habits and subsequent weight gain.

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Dawn Marcus
Since sleep and appetite are linked, it's not surprising that poor sleep has also been linked to obesity. Researchers at Columbia University monitored weight over 10 years in adults in the United States. People who reported sleeping less than 7 hours per night were more likely to develop obesity compared with people who slept 7 or more hours nightly. The less people slept, the more overweight they were. Excess weight was highest in those people sleeping the fewest hours each night. People sleeping only 2 to 4 hours each night were over twice as likely to be obese as people sleeping 7 hours or more. The risk for being obese was 60 percent higher in people sleeping 5 hours each night and 27 percent higher among those sleeping 6 hours.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.