Can you lose weight while you sleep? The truth is that sleep deprivation is a major cause of chronic stress, which leads to elevated levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone produced in the adrenal cortex. It is what keeps us safe in emergencies, and enhances our body’s ability to access glucose so we can burn them as needed to cope. However, when we are not actually under attack or fleeing a predator, but these stresses are not occasional but more constant (usually inflicted mentally, on an internal basis, even by our imagination) then cortisol remains elevated in the body, and so does glucose.
When glucose is elevated, levels of insulin rise in the body as well. Over time, elevated insulin leads to insulin resistance, and this is what leads to weight gain and diabetes. For more on the mechanism of these hormones, I highly recommend Dr. Jason Fung’s book, The Obesity Code, which sets forth a hormonal theory of the causes of obesity. Nothing he speaks about is truly ‘new’ but he examines and critiques the research literature to explore the true causes of this long term health crisis and I found very valuable insights.
To reduce cortisol in the body, and its subsequent effects, which cause weight gain, we must reduce stress. Other hormones, leptin and ghrelin, vital to the control of body fat and appetite are also disrupted by sleep disturbances. Ever wonder why you have “the munchies” when you are sleep deprived? It is because your hormones are doing what nature intended them to do – and as a consequence, if we do not manage our stress and restore our sleep, this will lead to weight gain for most people.
As someone who struggles with sleep, when I began learning the science behind cortisol, insulin and the regulators of weight gain and loss, it motivated me to figure out strategies to improve my own sleep. There are a lot of products on the market that are sold to people who want more sleep, and naturally, in an era where many of us seem to realize we need sleep, but seem unable to get as much as we want, we look for the quick fix.
I have found that, over the past year or so, I am developing better sleep routines that have helped immensely. I do take a magnesium supplement before bed or with dinner, since our diet and lifestyle tend to strip us of this needed nutrient and magnesium (400-500mg) helps me get deeper sleep. I have also cut way back on sugar, since swings in insulin while we sleep are one cause of wakefulness and disrupted sleep. Cutting out alcohol has helped my sleep quality tremendously, and when I realized that, it was much easier to say “no” to the glass of wine offered while dining out.
The biggest help to my sleep seems to be my devotion to shutting down my “addictive” smart phone and any screens at least an hour before bedtime. If you have not heard about the effects of blue light on our sleep, Google this to learn more. Leaving my phone outside my bedroom and powering it off completely is another way I preserve my sleep time. The bedroom is a place for sleep, sex and relaxation. I read actual, paper books before bed. Some people have screen readers without backlighting that might serve the same purpose but I am old-fashioned when it comes to turning the pages of a book.
There are many other strategies that people use to get a good night’s sleep, and I am sure I will write more about the topic. But suffice it to say, if you are skipping sleep to get your workout in, or thinking that more waking time means more calories burned, please realize your body does not work this way. The cortisol and insulin systems will work against you when you create more stress in the body by not giving it adequate rest.
If you have problems getting good sleep, you should consult with your doctor, and perhaps also a nutritionist because there are some nutrients that, when missing (like magnesium) will impair your sleep. By all means, try those before you reach for a heavily marketed sleep drug. But realize too that if there are stressful situations in your life causing you to lose sleep, sometimes talking with a friend or a therapist or someone who can help you process those anxious thoughts can be helpful.
I am not ashamed to admit that I value good therapy. If you are working through difficult circumstances or life situations, please find a good one and make time to see them regularly. Mental health to me is as critical as physical health. Sleep is a part of keeping consistent mental health, energy levels and overall quality of life. While I occasionally deal with a bout of insomnia, I am not willing to sacrifice my sleep for any non-emergency, including work demands or even some fun events that mess with my sleep cycle. I have found that, in losing weight and keeping it off, this is a critical ingredient, even more than all the miles I used to run…
Getting adequate sleep is not lazy! Try to get more of it and see how much LESS lazy you feel, and how much easier it is to maintain or lose weight, if those are your goals. Happy Friday, friends! May you sleep, dream and feel restored.