The Link Between Sleep and Weight Loss: What You Need to Know

While we often associate weight loss with nutrition and exercise, research shows that sufficient sleep is just as important.

The Link Between Sleep and Weight Loss: What You Need to Know

Do you feel like you have tried out every weight loss tip in the book – counting calories and cleanses, switching to whole wheat and multi-grain, adding supplements and removing carbs, introducing eating windows and aerobics – and nothing seems to work? If losing weight keeps you up at night… that might literally be the reason you’re struggling. While we often associate weight loss with two main factors, nutrition and exercise, research shows that sufficient sleep is just as important for your weight loss goals. Here is everything you need to know about the link between weight loss and sleep (the forgotten factor).

How much should I sleep?

Throughout this article, we will talk about the benefits of “sufficient sleep.” But how much sleep is sufficient? Teenagers are notoriously known for their irregular sleeping schedules. Over two-thirds of American high school students sleep fewer hours than the optimal amount. You might hear stories of soldiers who successfully performed grueling physical tasks on three to four hours of sleep. While it’s possible to function on minimal sleep, it’s certainly not recommended, and may have both long-term and short-term negative effects. 

When we think of sleep, we need to stop thinking about it as just a biological need, but rather as a core contributor to a healthy life. It is similar to the way we think of food: we can think of eating merely as a means of survival, in which case routinely eating chips and drinking soda make sense. But if we want to live better and longer, we need to start thinking about what we eat and how much we eat. Similarly, sufficient, quality sleep is a key contributor to a healthy lifestyle. It is linked to heart disease, mental health disorders, diabetes, and as the title suggests – weight loss. 

So, how many hours of sleep make up a sufficient amount? Scientific research suggests that the answer is – it depends. It depends on various factors, including your age and activity levels. But as a good rule of thumb:

Newborns: 14 to 17 hours

Infants: 12 to 15 hours 

Toddlers: 11 to 14 hours 

Preschool-aged children: 10 to 13 hours

School-aged kids: 9 to 11 hours

Teenagers: 8 to 10 hours 

Adults: 7 to 9 hours

Occasionally sleeping outside the range will not dramatically affect your life. But a lifestyle that revolves around late nights and early mornings is likely to end up leading to serious effects on your overall health, performance, wellbeing, and weight. 

How does sleep deficiency affect weight loss?

A meta-analysis published in 2019 found that subjects who were sleep deprived were hungrier and consumed 252.8 more calories per day than subjects who followed the recommended sleeping schedule. These results reinforced the notion that insufficient sleep tampers with our ability to lose weight. But why is that? The science says it’s due to a combination of chemical and behavioral changes and suggests that two hormones in particular (leptin, a hormone that helps us feel full, and ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite), are affected when we're tired, causing us to crave food when we don't really need it. What we do know for sure is that subjects in the 2019 meta-analysis showed low insulin sensitivity and significant changes to the control and reward systems in the brain. In other words, lack of sleep makes it harder for us to resist easting what we know we should avoid. While hormonal irregularities would draw a quick link between sleep deprivation, abnormal hunger and weight gain, we don’t have enough data yet to draw any easy conclusions. 

It’s sometimes tempting to look at chemical explanations as a quick fix – adjust the hormone levels, take a pill, and everything will fall into place, but as with most things in life, changes to behavior are necessary to have any meaningful impact. After all, our healthy eating and exercising habits are likely the first things to go when we’re not sleeping well. After a sleepless night, we are naturally more tired, which means we’re more likely to order a pizza than cook that roast chicken. We are also more likely to skip the gym due to fatigue and lack of motivation. We might even want to eat more sugar for a boost of energy.

Ways to improve sleep:

We know that sleep is a central aspect of healthy living and that it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. While we as a society stress the importance of healthy eating and regular exercise, we don’t often talk about sleep the same way. Which is odd, because sleep is arguably the easiest of the three to address. You don’t need to go to a gym, take breaks, or read labels – you just have to not do anything for seven to nine hours! Yet, over a third of Americans are sleep deprived. So how can we improve our sleep?

Embrace a calming nightly routine: Do you like to take baths before bed? Maybe read a book, listen to music, or meditate? Help your brain realize it should drift into night mode by sticking to whatever routine makes you feel good. 

Eliminate electronics from your nightly routine: It is widely agreed that you should avoid playing on your phone, checking your email, and watching TV before bed. While there isn’t a clear cut-off time, you should put your electronics to sleep a half hour before you go to bed at the very least. 

Keep the bed for what the bed was made for: Especially for those of us who work from home, it is tempting to stay in a warm, welcoming bed. But there is a downside to that. Getting in bed is part of a nightly routine and it’s a sign for your brain to get ready for seven to nine hours of relaxation. Try to avoid turning your bed into your TV spot, working area, or dining hall.

Aim to have a consistent sleep schedule: We’re very sorry to tell you, but weekend recovery sleep (you know, the “TGIF! Let’s-catch-up-on-some-sleep!” sleep) is not a viable alternative to good ongoing sleep. It is better to have a daily goal of when to start your nightly routine and stick with it throughout the week. 

Time your coffee breaks: Coffee can be the first thing you do in the morning, but it shouldn’t be the last thing you do at night. The recommendation is to avoid drinking coffee six hours before bedtime. So, if you go aim to go to sleep at 10pm, make sure you finish your last sip by 4. Please note that it is important to take into account your body’s subjective response to caffeine. Your individual cutoff time might be even earlier. 

Nap early: After working in the garden, meeting with coworkers all day, or writing a blog post about the benefits of sleep, a nap sounds like a great idea. We don’t oppose naps, but we do encourage nappers to try to do it earlier in the day. Napping too close to bedtime may make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. 

Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Avoid drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco, take care of your mental health, eat well, and exercise. The relationship between sleep and a healthy lifestyle is circular: The better you sleep, the livelier you are. And the opposite is true as well, the more you take care of yourself, the better you will sleep. 

Reach out to us: A big portion of research was done on “healthy adults.” That is, people with no known clinical conditions that prevent them from sleeping. If you are experiencing persisting difficulties sleeping, or if conditions worsen, you should consider reaching out to one of Antidote’s board-certified mental health doctors. Our doctors offer assessment, guidance, and treatment of several conditions in adults, including insomnia disorder

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