It’s no secret that obesity is on the rise. With foods full of calories that provide little nutritional value packing the shelves, it’s no wonder we’ve become a nation of growing waistlines. There’s a ton of information out there on the causes of weight gain—stress, genetics, family history, disease, drugs. However, there’s one that’s easily overlooked and often found alongside obesity—sleep deprivation.
Everyone—you, your colleagues, your customers—need at least seven hours of sleep. Yet, anywhere from 28 to 44 percent of adults sleep less than seven hours per night. How does sleep influence weight gain? And what can be done to increase the consistency with which people get enough sleep?
Let’s start with the first issue—how does sleep affect weight gain? At first glance, the two don’t seem to be related, but biologically, they are. Once the sleep deprivation zone is entered, that’s anytime you get less than seven hours of sleep, the body changes the release of hunger hormones.
It increases ghrelin, the hormone that makes you feel hungry, and decreases leptin, a hormone that makes you feel full. The combo puts hunger into high gear and doesn’t hit the stop button until you’re well past your caloric needs. Why does the body make you hungry when you’re tired? Scientists speculate that it’s a survival mechanism. In days we’d all rather not visit, lack of sleep meant you were probably running for your life so you needed more calories to meet energy needs.
However, in today’s world of prepackaged foods and vending machines, it’s more likely you’re running to the frozen food section than from a mastodon.
Craving All the Things
Cravings are the other side of weight gain that’s affected by sleep deprivation. Food not only fills your stomach; it also sends signals to the brain’s reward center. This positive reinforcement once kept humans from starving to death. However, when you’re running low on sleep, the brain’s reward center gets extra rewards from fatty, sugary foods. Cupcakes, candy, crackers—they’re all much harder to resist when you’re tired because the brain gets extra happy when you eat them.
With hunger and cravings running amok, it’s easier to see how sleep deprivation and weight gain are a perfect pair.
Putting Sleep (And Priorities) Back In Order
So, what can you do? Plenty. The length and quality of the sleep cycle are largely determined by personal habits and nutrition. That puts control in the hands of the sleeper. Here are a few tips to get started.
- Create consistency and routine. The human body is designed to recognize and adapt to predictable routines. Going to bed on time and following a bedtime routine are vital steps to better sleep. A bedtime routine prepares your mind and body by reducing heart rate, releasing stress, and reducing blood pressure. With time, the brain will come to anticipate bedtime and start the release of sleep hormones accordingly.
- Eat for sleep. A routine can also be created around food. Meals eaten at the same time and at regular intervals helps the brain recognize when it’s time to sleep. The content of those meals plays a part too. Foods rich in potassium, magnesium, tryptophan, and melatonin fuel the body with nutrients used to regulate and run the sleep cycle.
- Smart supplements. It can be tough to consume the right nutrients day after day. That’s where nutraceutical companies and dietary supplements come in. Vitamins and supplements with sleep-supportive nutrients—the potassium, magnesium, tryptophan, calcium, and melatonin we just mentioned—can make sure the body has what it needs once nighttime rolls around no matter what’s been eaten during the day.
- Light your way to better sleep. The great outdoors can improve sleep quality. Sunlight suppresses sleep hormones during the day so they can be fully released in the evening. Light therapy can be used during the winter months when inclement weather may keep you indoors.
There’s no way around it. Weight control requires adequate sleep. Good habits with nutrition to fuel the body is the best way to get a full night’s rest. And you can create the products to help yourself and your customers sleep better.
Amy Highland is a sleep expert at SleepHelp.org. Her preferred research topics are health and wellness, so Amy's a regular reader of Scientific American and Nature. She loves taking naps during thunderstorms and cuddling up with a blanket, book, and cats.