Have you ever noticed the day after a poor night’s sleep how hungry you are, or how you crave all the “wrong” foods- like bread, pasta, and sweets?
This is not your imagination that you are craving these more than normal, it’s a physiological result of getting less sleep than you need. Over time, this can lead to weight gain, depression, and a whole host of other medical problems.
According to researchers, sleep is one of the most critical elements in maintaining health. In the United States, over 35 percent of adults report getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night, which at the minimum is 10 percent less than the recommended 7 to 8 hours, and their sleep is often impacted by light pollution, noise, and the effects of blue light exposure from screens prior to sleep.
One of the major repercussions of sleep deprivation is weight gain.
When the human body is chronically sleep deprived, the hormonal system begins a cascade of events that leave us in a stress induced state. The brain requires sleep to regenerate, without it, it must rely on its primary source of fuel- glucose. As such, when a person is sleep deprived, the endocrine system increases cortisol levels, which in turn elevate glucose levels to ensure the brain receives enough fuel. The consequences of this stress induced state are that the sleep deprived individual is now at the mercy of a very primitive need- the fight or flight mechanism. The fight or flight state means the body will constantly be demanding carbohydrates to ensure blood sugar levels remain at the right place to run away if need be, despite the fact the individual has no true threat, only that they need to sleep.
This cycle of sleep deprivation, raised cortisol levels, increased demand for carbohydrates, and the fact that this fuel is not readily being used results in excess calories being stored as fat.
In addition to hormonal responses, individuals in a sleep deprived state have been shown to have decreased self-control when making food choices, and will routinely choose high calorie, high sugar foods over healthier options. This leads to further weight gain.
The behavior component is one that many researchers are focusing on now because of the long-term implications of stress, sugar consumption, and chronic sleep loss. Being in a sleep deprived state affects cognition, social interactions, reaction time, and good decision making. Persons who are sleep deprived are more likely to get into car accidents, have poor relationships with their significant others, and have trouble performing at work. These behaviors can lead to depression and social isolation, which are two additional factors linked to weight gain and obesity. The problems do not stop there.
By being in a sleep deprived state, the immune system is affected, leaving individuals more prone to getting sick and suffering from other chronic diseases such as heart disease.
This cycle is self-perpetuating- the individual is sleep deprived, uses sugar to manage the effects, gains weight, performs poorly at work, becomes depressed, has health issues, separates more from society, gains more weight, and so on. In addition to the direct health impacts of sleep deprivation, the overweight or obese individual is more likely to suffer from sleep disruptions such as sleep apnea (20 percent of individuals classified as overweight or obese suffer from sleep disordered breathing) thereby making the situation increasingly more difficult to manage.
While it is understandable how challenging it can be to get enough sleep every night, if you are currently struggling with getting your weight under control, addressing your sleep patterns will be a key component in setting yourself up for success. As a health coach, I work closely with my clients to establish and implement realistic sleep goals to help them on their road to wellness. If you need help with getting your sleep dialed in, check out more about my health coaching services.