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Can Lack of Sleep Cause You to Gain Weight?

‘Sleep is for losers’.

This seems to be the prevailing mentality among busy professionals, as if getting by on just three or four hours of sleep per night is some kind of badge of honour.

But while we have until recently celebrated skimping on sleep in this increasingly fast-paced world, our culture seems to be at an interesting turning point.

It is only now, as we are so busy and distracted in our everyday lives,  that we have come to realise the value of sleeping deeply and consistently.

Even Gwyneth Paltrow, who hasn’t come across a fad she hasn’t embraced, has turned her fickle gaze towards sleep, championing a “clean sleeping” regimen.

You only have to look at the digital marketplace to see people everywhere are starting to take sleep seriously, with dozens of sleep trackers, sleep aids, supplements, medications, mattress toppers, rituals and routines available that are all geared towards “hacking” your sleep.

So where does the truth lie? Is sleep the ultimate panacea? Or is it, though utterly necessary, being fetishised to a distracting degree?

Sleeping man

Can lack of sleep make you fat?

Lack of sleep itself will not directly make you fat. However, it will increase the likelihood of you gaining fat. Firstly, lack of sleep will disturb the hormones which impact your appetite – ghrelin and leptin.

Ghrelin, the hormone which signals hunger, will increase due to lack of sleep, therefore making you hungrier.

Leptin, which is released by fat tissue, sends a signal to the brain about how much stored energy is available. Leptin levels drop in response to lack of sleep, making your body’s signalling processes unreliable.

Your sleep-deprived body is essentially lying to you about its energy needs. Cravings and binges will likely ensue.

Lack of sleep will also cause you to partition nutrients less favourably, largely by making you more insulin resistant. This will result in more fat storage and less lean tissue.

Be aware that this will occur even in a calorie deficit. If you are sleeping poorly your body will still lose weight, however, the ratio between fat and muscle loss will be less favourable than if you were sleeping well.


So what can you do to ensure better sleep?

A good night of sleep doesn’t begin when the lights go out. Sleeping well is a byproduct of healthy behaviours that begin on waking. Addressing your body’s biorhythms is essential for improving sleep long term.

So what does that actually mean?

1. Get some sunshine 

Bright light is good for you, but only at the right time of day. Exposure to sunlight in the morning and early afternoon will reinforce correct circadian rhythms. Try taking walks outside around lunchtime or early in the morning upon waking.

If you live in a particularly gloomy location, we’re thinking England in February rather than Sydney, then you might consider investing in a light box which will mimic natural sunlight. Dawn alarm clocks have become quite popular recently and serve this function.

Marbella sun

2. Stay off technology before bed

Avoid blue light exposure in the evening. The very same light which wakes you in the morning will logically prevent you from sleeping at night. This means laptops, mobile phones and other devices shouldn’t be used before bed.

Blue light will stop you from producing melatonin which will make it difficult to fall asleep. If you’re in the habit of checking your phone before bed then you’ll likely have issues with dropping off.  Establish a 1-2 hour buffer with no technology before bed. If you must use technology for work, then install an app such as f.lux or use the night setting in your iPhone – these apps will dim the intensity of the light.

Phones bed

3. Be consistent.

Sleep quality is improved dramatically when you adhere to a regular schedule. Try to fall asleep within an hour of your regular bedtime. I’m afraid this counts for weekends too. There is a phenomenon known as ‘social jet lag’ whereby people suffer jet lag symptoms due to big nights out and long lie-ins at the weekends disrupting the weekday rhythm.

If you want to learn more about the relationship between good sleep and weight loss, check out this article. 

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