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4 things science says about sleep for better fat loss, hunger control and gym performance

What if we told you there was a supplement that could help you lose fat more effectively, better control your appetite, maintain muscle mass and improve your performance in the gym?  

You would think that it’s too good to be true, right?  

Well, actually there is something that can help you do all this, and more – and the best thing is, it’s absolutely free!  

It’s called sleep.   

While it’s not a simple supplement you can just pop every morning, good quality sleep is one of the most powerful tools for our body and brain that absolutely anyone can tap into to level up their health, body composition, cognitive abilities and gym gains in one fell swoop.  

Here are four key areas that science shows we can improve with better quality sleep.  

1. Sleep can help support more effective fat loss   

Science shows us that decreased sleep time is directly linked to increased body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage and central body fat distribution (the more pernicious kind of body fat stored on your midsection and around organs).   

This means that a lack of sleep not only increases our proclivity to gain weight over time, but also that this weight gain will come more from body fat – especially stored in less favourable areas, not just in terms of aesthetics, but also health (central/visceral fat is linked to disease states such as type-2 diabetes).  

Small scale studies have shown that under controlled conditions (same calorie deficit, food choices etc.) that lack of sleep (8.5-hours vs 5.5-hours) led to similar relative total weight loss, but a vast difference in where this weight loss came from.   

In one study, the well-slept group lost 55% of total weight loss from body fat, whilst the sleep-deprived group lost less than half of that, with only 25% coming from body fat.   

The results of this study have also been replicated elsewhere, supporting the conclusion that sleep helps to preserve muscle mass and liberate body fat as a result of a calorie deficit.   

Conversely, people who under-sleep are more likely to lose more muscle tissue and preserve more fat to achieve the same amount of weight loss.  

This difference will vastly change how you look as a result of a fat loss pursuit in a negative way, as well as compromise your health.   

2. Sleep can help better regulate your appetite  

When it comes to maintaining weight loss, people who sleep less have up to a 40% increased risk of regaining all weight lost during previous diets, when compared to people with higher sleep duration.   

The reasons for this are likely due to a decreased ability to control total calorie intake over time.   

Leptin and ghrelin are two primary hormones related to weight maintenance and obesity that have a predictable relationship to sleep duration.  

Sleep deprivation can impair weight loss and promote weight gain. Even one night of sleep loss can impact these two key hormones in a negative way – the less we sleep, the more our drive for increased bodyweight and food consumption goes up.   

Studies show that ad libitum calorie intake is increased by an average of 400 calories following a single night of sleep deprivation.  

Not just that, but the types of foods people seek out in this context are also biased towards calorie-dense or processed foods (junk food like burgers, pizza, crisps etc.) over more nutrient-dense foods like lean proteins, fruits, vegetables etc.   

This can further make weight loss more of a challenge, as heavily processed foods will satisfy hunger to a much lesser degree relative to whole, nutrient-dense foods, meaning we will require a higher calorie amount to satisfy hunger.   

We also know that highly processed foods cause increased energy harvesting (basically, the percentage of calories stored, and that ultimately affect our body weight, relative to the amount in the food) when compared to foods that are less processed.   

Finally, people who are sleep deprived have increased activity reward centres in the brain when exposed to junk food – this increased drive to eat for pleasure is known as ‘hedonic hunger’.  

3. Sleep can help prevent muscle loss  

Research shows us that sleep deprivation negatively affects the underlying processes that regulate our levels of muscle mass.   

One study showed that even in healthy people, sleep deprivation causes a spontaneous loss of lean muscle tissue that was not observed in the study’s control group.  

Even worse, the sleep-deprived group lost weight initially from muscle and subsequently regained it shortly afterwards through body fat accumulation.   

There is evidence that hormones and processes crucial to the muscle-building process and recovery, are negatively affected by sleep deprivation.   

Reductions in circulating testosterone, decreased rates of muscle protein synthesis (the main component of changes in muscle size) and increased rates of muscle protein breakdown are reported when individuals have sleep duration reduced, which would have tangible effects on muscle size, performance and recovery from training.  

In the context of weight loss and maintenance, muscle loss is significant too. Under-slept people saw decreases in resting metabolic rate relative to people sleeping around eight hours.  

What this means is people who slept well were able to eat more calories, perform less activity but still maintain the same bodyweight compared to the under-slept group studied.   

For long-term maintenance of weight loss, this is significant. These differences in metabolic rate will be a strong predictor of weight loss maintenance over the long term.   

The reason for this is obvious, individuals that burn more calories at rest can eat more food, have more flexibility in their diet and rely on activity less to maintain the same weight loss.  

4. Sleep can help your performance in the gym  

Sleep deprivation of as little as 2 hours will predictably reduce performance in the gym, primarily affecting activities that require sustained levels of intense activity – for example, resistance training, sprints, and longer-duration activity like jogging or walking.  

It seems that the impact comes from the increased perception of effort – it basically feels harder to do something when we are tired versus when we are well slept).  

Perception of effort is a strong predictor for the point at which we fatigue or discontinue a bout of exercise.   

How far away from not being able to continue exercising we think we are, is going to determine when we do actually stop working as hard or stop altogether.  

Because sleep deprivation predictably lowers our ability to handle discomfort, it is logical that the point at which we stop will also decrease.   

The result is fewer repetitions and less overall weight lifted – crucial elements of improving the amount of muscle mass through “progressive overload” which requires us to work harder over time to progress.    

This increase in perception of effort may prevent us from pushing to the point we need to, to continue to make progress.   

The same decreases in performance, as a result of sleep deprivation, are seen in strength training too at higher intensities   

One-repetition maximum bench press, squat and deadlift were reduced in a study partially depriving subjects of sleep, relative to well-slept control groups.   

So what can we do to reap the benefits of improved sleep quality?  

Avoid excessive stimulant intake   

Caffeine is everyone’s favourite drink when we need a kickstart to wake up and feel alert and fully functional on a Monday morning. When used at the right time and in the right dose, it can aid training performance too – reducing perception of effort and helping to increase our potential output.   

Unfortunately, the effects of caffeine and other stimulants are not suited to promoting sleep and can mean it takes significantly longer to get to sleep. Recommendations for when to stop consuming caffeine will generally range at stopping consumption between 6 to 8 hours before your intended sleep time.   

Ensuring adequate exposure to natural light  

As much as darkness signals for sleep, natural light signals for day time wakefulness. Attaining more natural light during the day time is directly linked to an improved ability to sleep at night time. Studies have shown that the more natural light we attain before noon, the more readily we will sleep when it gets to night time and darkness ensues. For this reason, we recommend trying to achieve approximately 30 to 90 minutes of sunlight before noon each day – even if it’s cloudy.    

Set a bedtime routine  

Sleep is all about rhythm and routine, so find a relaxing routine that you can consistently comply with each night, that predictably leads to sleep.   

Lots of options are available, as what is relaxing to you, will differ from what is relaxing to someone else. Common suggestions include taking a hot bath, meditation, stretching, reading a book, listening to music or just spending time relaxing with your family and enjoying their company. What is important is consistency in this routine.   

Set your sleep environment  

Controlling your sleep environment can help both improve how well you get to sleep, as well as keep you asleep more readily. Improving your sleep environment entails removing any external factors that may increase arousal and promote wakefulness. These primarily include light, noise and temperature.   

Remove any light-emitting electronic devices from the bedroom, invest in blackout blinds, or even a sleep mask. Avoid blue light from screens in the 60-90 minutes before bed where possible. Control the temperature of your room so it is cool as warmer temperatures reduce your body’s ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. Reduce external noises as much as possible too, or even block them out with ear plugs.   

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