Sleep your way to fat loss!?

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Can you sleep yourself skinny?

By Jake Foster

Most individuals, with even an elementary knowledge of health and wellness, will tell you that exercise regimens coupled with a healthy diet aids in fat loss. However, missing from many of these conversations is the recognition of the importance that adequate sleep plays in maintaining appropriate levels of body fat. Dr. Matthew Walker, neuroscientist and author of the book, “Why We Sleep”, elevates sleep alongside diet and exercise to what he refers to as the “health trinity”. In fact, the analogy of the trinity is even misleading as it implies that sleep is equally important to diet and exercise. On the other hand, according to Dr. Walker, “sleep is the foundation on which the other two health bastions sit.” Unfortunately, over two-thirds of the world does not receive the World Health Organization’s recommendation of eight hours of daily sleep. In the United States, in particular, there is little wonder at the fact that as obesity continues to climb, the average hours of nightly sleep for Americans is in steady decline. That is largely because sleeping less than eight hours a night increases the probability of gaining fat or having a difficult time in losing it due to poor hormonal regulation, decreased impulse control, lack of energy and an increase in chronic stress.

Insufficient sleep increases your desire to eat more food, inhibiting your ability to restrict caloric intake or maintain a proper body weight. According to a study performed by Dr. Eve Van Cauter at the University of Chicago, individuals who only slept an average of four to five hours a night ate an average of 300 more calories a day than those who slept eight or more hours (this could cause an estimated 10 pounds or more of weight gain per year). Dr. Cauter posited that this was due to the body’s inability to regulate two hormones that control hunger: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin gives your body its feelings of fullness, while ghrelin signals the brain when you are hungry. Dr. Cauter’s study found that participants whose sleep was restricted had a diminished amount of leptin and increased levels of ghrelin in their body. If your goal is to lose body fat and you’re not currently allowing your body to receive the amount of sleep it needs, you are fighting against your own physiology. Dieters trying to reduce caloric intake will have a difficult time achieving results when a lack of sleep is muting the brain’s ability to understand when it is full. 

A lack of sleep not only tells the brain to consume more food, it hinders its’ ability to choose the right foods. Another study performed by Dr. Walker analyzed the brain activity of sleep-deprived participants. Dr. Walker and his colleagues found that activity in the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that regulates an individual’s ability to make logical decisions and judgements, had less activity in comparison to the portions of the brain that control desire and motivation. Due to the brain’s reduced ability to make restrictive and prudent decisions and its’ increased desire for more pleasurable choices,  participants in his study routinely chose salty, sweet, carbohydrate rich foods over proteins, fats or vegetables. According to Dr. Walker, “Ample sleep can therefore restore a system of impulse control within your brain, putting the brakes on potentially excessive eating.”

A simpler, yet equally as important, reason that inadequate sleep may be hindering your weight loss goals is that you simply do not have enough energy to exercise. Disregarding any biological anomalies, weight loss comes from a simple formula: caloric restriction and energy expenditure. As our culture has become increasingly more busy, reasons to avoid time to exercise are plentiful. One of the most common we hear at our gym is that people lack the energy or motivation to exercise before or after their workday. They are usually just “too tired”, and based on the World Health Organization’s estimates on average amounts of sleep, they are most likely telling the truth. There is little argument that less energy usually equates to a more sedentary lifestyle, making it more difficult to lose weight.

However, since exercise is only part of the weight loss equation, there may be those who will attempt to lose weight through diet alone. While this can certainly still amount to overall weight loss, there is no diet powerful enough to combat the negative metabolic effects of a lack of sleep. In fact, researchers set out to see what would happen when individuals maintained their poor sleeping habits while consistently restricting their calories. Although weight loss still occurred for individuals who only slept six hours a night, 70% of total weight loss came from lean body mass, not fat. This is a result of basic human biology. Whenever you are not getting enough rest, your body experiences increased levels of stress, which causes the body to retain more body fat to combat potential “perils” it thinks its facing.

While much more can be said of the physiological, or even psychological, dangers of a lack of sleep, readers who struggle to lose weight ought to be encouraged that one of the reasons could be as simple as not getting enough shuteye. Even if weight loss is not your goal, an overall healthy lifestyle certainly ought to be, and without sleep, it is highly unlikely to achieve. At Vital Fitness Lakeland, our mission statement is to bring vitality to our clients and community. Increasing an individual’s activeness or energy in life is impossible without a conversation about adequate levels of sleep. Therefore, whether your goal is to lose body fat, gain muscle, stay where you are at, have more energy with your kids, increase productivity at your job, improve your mood, or whatever it may be, we encourage you to sleep more. Otherwise, the age-old adage, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”, may happen sooner than you had hoped.