You can be doing everything right with your diet, but if you’re skating through every day on 5 hours of sack time and three cups of coffee, you’re sabotaging yourself. For anyone trying to lose weight or just get healthier, a chronic sleep debt is a giant eraser scrubbing away at all those healthy choices you’re making with your diet.
You probably already know that, though – and you’re probably also tired of people just telling you to “sleep more:” wouldn’t we all, if we could? So here’s a quick reminder of why sleep is so important for weight loss, and some practical tips to help you actually make it happen.
Sleep: Why Does It Matter?
Sleep matters for weight loss for two big reasons. First, there’s the behavioral aspect: how much sleep you get influences what you’re likely to put in your mouth. Second, there’s the metabolic aspect: sleep deprivation profoundly changes what happens to that food once it’s already down the hatch.
Sleep, Cravings, and Behavior
Study after study has shown that if they’re allowed to choose their own diet, sleep-deprived subjects will eat more food, especially more junk. Assuming you aren’t living in a metabolic ward, you too have the ability to choose your own diet – and you too will likely go for the “comfort food” in the face of sleep deprivation. Specifically, sleep deprivation is a huge risk factor for sugar cravings and overeating high-carb junk food (think cookies, pretzels, pasta bowls…)
This is pretty easy to understand – if you don’t have enough energy from one source, your body will go looking for it somewhere else. Unfortunately, the easiest “quick energy” available to most of us is sugary junk food, so sleep deprivation is sending us straight for the candy aisle.
Sleep and Metabolism
Let’s say you have iron willpower, though. You’re one of the few who can stride past the vending machine after a week of late nights and not give the Snickers a backwards glance. Because you’re exceptionally good at estimating your food intake, and because you’re completely on top of everything despite the situation that’s causing the sleep debt in the first place, you don’t even eat more Paleo food than usual (unlikely, but theoretically possible).
Your body still knows you haven’t slept, and it’s still not happy about it. Sleep loss…
- Reduces insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity is the metabolic capacity to handle eating carbs – to use them for energy, instead of storing them as fat. A reduction in insulin sensitivity means that you’re more likely to store food as fat (and then still be hungry afterwards).
- Changes the composition of the gut flora. Nobody is totally sure yet exactly what the relationship is between the gut flora and obesity, but we know there is one.
- Creates inflammation. In this study, for example, either sleeping 5 hours a night or sleeping at the wrong time (the shift work pattern) increased markers of inflammation. This study makes it even clearer: “sleep deficient humans…exhibit a proinflammatory component; therefore, sleep loss is considered as a risk factor for developing cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis).” Nothing that promotes diabetes is helping you lose weight.
Sleeping for Weight Loss
Now comes the really hard part: actually getting the sleep that you need. With a few well-rested exceptions, most people in the modern world simply don’t get enough hours in the sack. So here’s a guide to figuring out what’s really holding you back from the sleep you need, and how to fix that.
If you keep looking up at 1:30am wondering where the time went…
…you’re having trouble with planning and priorities (and very possibly in the “just one more episode/level/chapter” club). Right now, sleep just isn’t a priority in your life. You might say it’s a priority, but priorities are about what you do, not what you say. If you’re staying up to watch TV, then TV is a higher priority than sleep.
Clearly, the solution is to make sleep a higher priority than whatever is keeping you up, but you have to do this by changing your behavior, not just talking about it. Try using specific, trackable tactics like…
- Set a bedtime. Count back 8-9 hours from when you have to wake up: that’s your bedtime. Write it in your calendar if you have to, and set an alarm on whatever electronic device you typically use in the evening.
- Create a bedtime routine. If you always get up to brush your teeth at 9:30, sooner or later it’ll get automatic and you’ll end up doing it even on “off days.”
- Ban electronics from the bedroom. If they’re not there, they can’t distract you.
- Schedule a “done time” for your work. Don’t tell yourself you have all evening to do whatever it is; give yourself a deadline so you can get it done and then relax and get ready for bed.
- Address any chronic procrastination issues. Procrastinating might like a non-problem to people who don’t struggle with it, but it is serious, and there are ways to address it if you can find a good counselor or therapist to help you.
If you have a medical problem that prevents you from sleeping…
…your best bet is to see a doctor. Issues like insomnia can keep you lying awake even if you’re technically in your bed for 8 hours every night. Even non-sleep-related problems, like GERD, can sometimes keep you up if they make you uncomfortable enough. And sleep disorders (sleep apnea is probably the most common example) can make your sleep unrefreshing even if you’re technically unconscious for all of those 8 hours.
Paleo can be a huge help for some of these issues (check out some more tips on insomnia here), and weight loss alone often helps a lot with apnea, but ultimately if you have a serious disease or disorder that’s keeping you up, go talk to a doctor and find out what your treatment options are.
If you’re too busy to sleep…
…first double-check to make sure you’re actually too busy. Chronic procrastinators, poor time managers, and Star Trek rerun addicts are not “too busy;” they’re having trouble with planning and priorities, which is a different problem. (If this is you, see “If you keep looking up at 1:30” above). People who are truly too busy to sleep don’t have time no matter how well they plan or what they do about it.
In this situation, it might be time to think about dialing back the amount of stuff you have going on everywhere else in your life. If you’re actually so busy that you can’t get enough sleep, you might be running on permanent “crisis mode,” which is a health collapse waiting to happen. It’s better to pull back now, while you still have some juice left in the tank, than to run the gas tank dry and be forced to stop wherever you end up.
Alternately, look for ways of adjusting your sleeping pattern around your life, rather than the other way around. Consider polyphasic sleep: “enough sleep” doesn’t have to mean 8 hours flat on your back all in one fell swoop. A smart napping schedule can go a very long way, if you do it regularly.
Summing it Up
Successful, long-term weight loss means finding a sleep schedule that makes you feel energized and ready to take on the day. Sleep deprivation can seriously throw off your behavior patterns and your body’s response to food, sabotaging your weight-loss efforts in several different ways. The solution to sleep deprivation depends on the cause, but you owe it to yourself to figure out what it is for you and how to address it.