Sleeping Your Way to Weight Loss

Last February, my husband and I took a dream vacation to Bora Bora. It was everything I’d imagined: bungalows perched over the sea, tranquil water in that amazing blue/green color found so rarely, not a care in the world.

View of Bora Bora beach from water
Panoramic view from the water of the Bora Bora beach where we spent so much time.

Our days were leisurely. After breakfast, we’d park ourselves underneath a beach umbrella with a book or two. It wasn’t my intent to spend much time completely comatose, but I wound up sleeping there by the shore for most of each day. I’d wake up long enough to splash in the water, eat a little something, down some water (and perhaps a cocktail), reapply sunscreen, and rotate. And then I’d be out again.

Surprisingly, I had no trouble whatsoever sleeping later at night. The resorts in Bora Bora are actually located on the barrier reef surrounding an extinct volcano.The ocean makes soft sounds, as there are few waves in this protected circle. Nights are the deepest quiet you can imagine, the sky filled with gorgeous stars. No city lights, no traffic noise, no people sounds.

I came home to discover I’d lost three pounds. On vacation.

The secret ingredient? That sleep.

How Much Sleep You Need vs. How Much Sleep You Get

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), adults need about 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night (children need 10 hours, teenagers that or slightly less). Like many others, I was sleep deprived. I’m not a pretty person on 6 hours of sleep or less. But, like some 30 percent of Americans, that’s what I was getting each night. At the time of our vacation, I was stressed and overworked, unable to achieve an uninterrupted night of shut-eye. Many days, I found myself up at 4 a.m., groggily trying to finish some piece of work so I could get “caught up” or find time for exercise.

Since I’ve left that job, I’ve slept like a baby. Which makes it all the harder when, for some reason or another, I can’t rest. The resulting funk and fog have made me realize  how essential sleep is to my general well being.

Heart-shaped box made out of chocolate
Yes, this box was made entirely out of chocolate. And we ate everything.

According to the CDC, those who are sleep deprived are more likely to suffer from

  • hypertension
  • diabetes
  • depression
  • obesity
  • cancer
  • increased mortality
  • reduced quality of life and productivity

Note OBESITY. Yes, yes; I realize the other items in the list are quite serious, but I’m focusing on weight in this particular case.

Sleep and Weight: What’s the Link?

Evidently, being short on sleep puts the brain into an unfortunate position. It’s like being drunk — the best decisions aren’t always made. According to WebMD, the frontal lobe becomes impaired and the reward center is looking for comfort. These conditions combine to encourage cravings, tendencies to overeat, and a likeliness toward carbohydrate-rich food choices. So, by being tired, we’re more likely to make bad food choices that skew the scale.

Bed at resort with red flowers
Fresh flowers every night helped with getting to sleep.

But the effects of sleep deprivation are not just mental. Being sleep deprived messes with the body’s hormones, too.

  • Ghrelin (cues hunger) increases
  • Leptin (cues fullness) lessens
  • Cortisol (stress hormone) spikes
  • Insulin (processes food into energy) is less effective

What these changes in hormones mean is that, when sleep deprived, the body hangs onto energy, hampering metabolism and causing–you guessed it–weight gain.

By correcting my sleep deprivation, I was putting my body back into its natural rhythms and righting imbalances, which led to weight loss on a vacation. It wasn’t that I was making better nutritional choices; my body was just able to function better.

Do Circadian Rhythms Affect Weight Loss?

So, if being sleep deprived can result in gaining pounds, what does a disruption in circadian rhythm (the body’s response to light and dark) do to weight? Say–a change in time? Jet lag? Working the night shift?

Sunset with clouds over the ocean
Gorgeous sunsets occurred nightly, all easily seen from the swim deck of our cabin over the lagoon.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences explains that, as with sleep deprivation, there are mental and biological components to circadian rhythms. First, there’s an area in the brain — the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN — located in the hypothalamus that coordinates the body’s different “clocks,” including each person’s natural circadian rhythm.

The SCN regulates melatonin. This hormone is triggered by light and “anticipates darkness,” helping you go to sleep, so normal production should rise in the evening, peak during the night, and decrease in the morning. That arc can get skewed when changes are arbitrarily made (Daily Saving Time, anyone?) or new time zones entered.

When melatonin production is off, it affects sleep, which in turn, can affect health. Disruptions in circadian rhythm cycles have been linked to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), bipolar disorder, and three we’ve seen in an earlier list: depression, diabetes, and obesity.

Lesson learned? Perhaps one of the best things I can continue to do in my weight loss quest is to get plenty of sleep each night.

7 Tips for Good Sleep

It’s called “sleep hygiene” and the National Sleep Foundation recommends the following best practices:

  1. Maintain a regular sleep and wake pattern
  2. Get good exercise (vigorous in early part of day, gentle in evening)
  3. Soak up some sunlight
  4. Allow a few hours between dinner and bedtime
  5. Steer clear of stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, alcohol) before retiring
  6. Find a soothing nightly ritual
  7. Keep your bed separate from work and other activities
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5 thoughts on “Sleeping Your Way to Weight Loss

  1. 1. jealous of your vacation.
    2. love that you incorporate science/scientific findings into your posts.

    sleep is vital to health and we (Americans) don’t get enough of it. it’s a shame that we don’t prioritize it in the same way that we (well some of us) do diet and exercise.

  2. Hey Leah,
    I was on the hunt for correlation between sleep and weight loss today and found this post on your website.
    Thank you for this informative article. I will use some of its points to complete a new writing on my fitness blog.
    Keep doing such good article!

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