How does lack of sleep contribute to weight gain?

Lack of sleep contributes to weight gain in a number of ways. When you are lacking sleep, you may have low energy levels and therefore be less likely to exercise and more likely to overeat. Indeed, there could be a connection between your sleepless nights and expanding waistline. Lack of sleep upsets the normal activities of two hormones that control our appetite. Leptin is the hormone that sends the “stomach-is-full” message to the brain, and ghrelin is the hormone that sends out “eat-more” messages. But when you’re starved for sleep, those appetite-controlling hormones are thrown off balance.
Amy Jamieson-Petonic
Nutrition & Dietetics

This is very interesting stuff!  Lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain in a number of ways. If you are not sleeping, chances are that you are consuming more calories, and this would make sense for weight gain. But in addition to this, sleep deprivation alters hormones in the body that help us make healthy food choices. Sleep deprivation also increases the chances of heart disease and diabetes by increasing insulin resistance, the method on how your body regulates blood sugar levels. Research studies have shown that even one night of total sleep deprivation can have significantly negative make sure you get plenty of rest.

Amaris Noguera
Nutrition & Dietetics
Too little sleep affects our hormone levels- including hormones that control appetite. These hormone imbalances, along with the tendency to overeat in our search for energy, are some of the reasons research has found that lack of sleep is linked to weight gain. So while the time of day you eat doesn’t have as much of an impact on weight gain as how many total calories you eat, those extra awake-hours end up being opportunities for us to munch or snack on foods that could tip us over our daily caloric limit. Additionally, when we're tired, our judgment is impaired, and our will-power is compromised, so we’ll be less likely to make the healthier choice or resist a tempting food in our state of sleep deprivation.
Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine

Sleep deprivation increases hunger and slows down metabolism, thereby promoting weight gain. The underlying mechanisms include:

Increasing the level of cortisol, thereby promoting increased appetite, a craving for sugar, and weight gain. An elevated cortisol level also interferes with proper utilization of carbohydrates, leading to an increase in the storage of body fat and insulin resistance, a critical step in the development of obesity and diabetes. Elevating ghrelin and reducing leptin. Ghrelin is an appetite-stimulating hormone released mostly by the stomach. When ghrelin levels are up, people feel hungry. Leptin is a hormone, released by fat cells, that promotes a feeling of satiety.

In population studies, a dose-response relationship between short sleep duration and high body mass index (BMI) has been reported across all age groups. This observation alone indicates that sleeping more may help with weight loss. A very detailed analysis from the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study, a large sleep study that has been going on in Wisconsin for more than 15 years, provides even more insight. The participants have been filling out questionnaires about their sleep habits, have kept sleep diaries, and have occasionally spent a night in the laboratory, where researchers studied their sleep in more detail. After sleeping overnight in the laboratory, the participants gave blood samples, which were tested for levels of leptin and ghrelin. What the researchers found is that habitual or acute short sleep duration produces low leptin and high ghrelin levels, a powerful recipe for an increased appetite and for a craving for carbohydrate-rich foods, including cake, candy, ice cream, pasta, and bread.

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Ghrelin is a fast-acting hormone, produced in cells of the stomach, which spurs appetite and drives us to eat. Ghrelin may particularly increase appetite for high-calorie foods. There’s evidence that ghrelin may also direct fat towards the midsection of the body, where it is most dangerous to health. When the body is deprived of sleep, production of ghrelin increases. Research shows that even a single night of sleep deprivation can elevate ghrelin levels -- and appetite.

Leptin is a hormone that suppresses appetite by communicating to receptors in the brain that the body has the energy it needs to function, and doesn’t need to take on more. Leptin is produced in white fat cells throughout the body. The amount of fat in the body, then, influences the amount of leptin produced. When leptin levels are lower than normal, we’re less likely to feel full after eating. Food also appears more enticing to people with low leptin levels, according to research. Low sleep suppresses leptin production, making us more likely to feel ongoing pangs of hunger. Even short-term sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce leptin levels.

With these hormonal imbalances at work, it’s little surprise that sleep-deprived people are more likely to gain weight, and to have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight. More than a third of adults in the US are obese, as are 17 percent of children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Obesity, with its increased risks for many serious health problems -- including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer -- is arguably our nation’s leading public health problem. A recent study by the CDC projects that half of all adults in the US will be obese by the year 2030. Our collective weight problem endangers millions of lives and costs billions of dollars.
Lack of sleep can cause a dramatic rise in the body’s production of a hormone known as cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is part of the “fight or flight” response in our bodies. In high levels, cortisol will cause the body to break down muscle tissue and store more blood sugar and fat in the body. Lack of sleep also depresses levels of testosterone, growth hormone, and catecholamines hormones, which help speed up and regulate metabolism. This is why chronic sleep deprivation can help contribute to weight gain. 
A recent study of healthy volunteers in the medical journal Sleep found that those who slept 2 to 4 hours a night were over 200 percent more likely to be obese than those volunteers who got 7 hours of sleep. In fact, one study found, just a 16-minute loss of sleep per night also increased the risk of obesity.

These studies indicate that sleep loss lowers the level of leptin, a hormone that stimulates metabolism and decreases hunger. Sleep loss or shorter hours of sleep appear to boost the concentration of the hormone ghrelin, which increases hunger.

In a study of middle-aged women, researchers concluded that weight gain was related to the amount of sleep each night. This study started about twenty years ago when more than 68,000 women were asked every two years about their sleep patterns as well as their weight. After sixteen years, the findings revealed that those women who slept 5 hours or less each night weighed 5.4 pounds more than the women who slept 7 hours. The researchers thought that the women who slept less were not only threatened by weight gain but by obesity, as well. For instance, women who slept 5 or less hours per night were 15 percent more likely to become obese than were women who slept 7 hours each night.
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Getting enough sleep keeps you thin. That's because when your body doesn't get the 7 to 8 hours of sleep it needs every night to get rejuvenated, it needs to find ways to compensate for neurons not secreting the normal amounts of the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin or dopamine. The way it typically does is by craving sugary foods that will give you an immediate release of serotonin and dopamine.

The lack of sleep throws off your entire system—even increasing your levels of NPY, a peptide that decreases metabolism and increases appetite. Lack of sleep can become an even bigger factor as you age. When you get older, the pineal gland in your brain produces less of the sleep hormone melatonin, resulting in the subsequent cravings of carbohydrates.
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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.