Losing weight while you sleep

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.

 

Calvin sleeping
Calvin gets a lot of sleep but he has “hungry ghosts” and really loves his food.

 

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.

 

 

Yoga vs. sleep

Today I decided that getting an extra 30-45 minutes of sleep would outweigh my desire to attend a 5:45 a.m. yoga class that I typically enjoy. It is a lovely opportunity to meditate, get fully in tune with my body and my mind, and sweat out my worries. I approach the day with more a more even-tempered and loving perspective and it seems like I am kinder in the world, and therefore it is kinder to me.

But in my last year and a half of focusing more intensity on my my overall WellBeing, a large component of that has been working on getting adequate sleep every day. I used to struggle mightily with insomnia, and I tended to neglect sleep and rest in favor of early morning runs or other physical activity. When I started studying the clinical research on these issues and encountered books like Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath, I realized that sleep was non-negotiable for me. Another recent book by Arianna Huffington called The Sleep Revolution compiles both the history and the current research on the value and benefits of sleep.

Sleep

Clearly I am not the only one evangelizing on this topic. But I want to share my personal experience, both as someone who was a “sleep skeptic” and someone who still occasionally struggles with insomnia. One of the first benefits I noticed when I began tracking and measuring my sleep a little more closely was that I could see a correlation between the quality of my days, and my quantity/quality of sleep. As a clinical researcher, data always help me commit to habit changes that are beneficial. If I do not see the evidence that it helps, I just question its validity.

So I conducted an n=1 experiment. For those unfamiliar with clinical research “n” is the number of subjects you include in a study. Many people would be skeptical of a trial in which n=1. But I say: if that “1” is you, it is highly significant. Not to say that you can “design” a trial that is truly rigorous, because it cannot be a Randomized Controlled Trial as exists in the scientific literature. So there are confounding factors. For example, as I got more sleep, I began craving less sugar and carbs. Since sugar tends to disrupt our sleep (especially if consumed right before bed) it led to a virtuous cycle of both sleeping better and consuming less sugar.

I have struggled with attention deficit throughout my life, and it is managed somewhat with medicine and somewhat with regular exercise, which is why I posed the “either or” in the title of this post. I knew that getting vigorous exercise helps my brain with the focus issues, and there is plenty of clinical research to support this notion. But what I did not realize, was that the trade-off of sleep in favor of exercise, may have been causing inflammation in my body and brain. Try Googling those search terms and you will find a host of studies on how brain inflammation is connected to virtually all types of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety as well as more serious conditions like autism, dementia and schizophrenia.

My Dad always used to tell me to get my sleep, that I would risk heart attacks and other serious consequences by not sleeping. This was because in the early days of my adolescent (and throughout my adolescence and adult life) I was always an “early bird” and enjoyed mornings. But I would often stay up late reading a book or studying or doing other things that I enjoyed. Dad knew, without consulting the research, that I could be doing some damage by becoming sleep deprived. I also think this led to unhealthy eating patterns (high in carbohydrates, and lacking healthy fat) which I noticed especially during college and continuing into adulthood as well.

Bodies which do not have enough rest crave energy and restoration. While they cannot get this through food, they often turn to this “cheap substitute.” But when we feed ourselves the right nourishment in the form of adequate rest, our systems tend to reset. So while I love my yoga, and generally practice at least 3-4 times a week to feel my best, I have decided never to trade sleep for yoga. If my body is tired, and needs more rest, I will grant it the rest it needs before going to yoga. Developing this level of trust with my own body, and giving it what it truly needs to be healthy has allowed my body and brain to be more productive and more fulfilled.

Ironically, even though I spend more time sleeping these days (averaging 7-8 hours/night) I actually find time for yoga more easily. My priorities have aligned to make sure that I get regular yoga practice into my schedule, and I honor that commitment to myself. Also: yoga after work seems to lead to better sleep quality that night. Another virtuous circle.

So, dear reader, I suggest that the next time you are tempted to skip the workout because you are tired, maybe skip the workout and get another 60-90 minutes of sleep. If you really want to get that workout in, go to bed an hour earlier the night before. Set an alarm in the evening which reminds you when it is time to wind down for the night. Do this regularly and you will not regret it.

Namaste. Sleep well.

 

Fat rocks! Yes, more butter please

Really, it does! One of the most important discoveries I have made in the past 14 months that has led to a sustained 18 pound weight loss is that eating more healthy fats in my diet keeps me feeling more energetic, more calm, less distracted and less anxious. I grew up drinking skim milk and clinging to a low-fat diet notion that was in vogue at the time, based on dietary guidelines set in 1970’s that were based on an untested ideas devoid of scientific research. I thought it was really fascinating to read about the evolution of this understanding in Dr. Jason Fung’s book The Obesity Code, a well-researched look at how obesity is driven by our hormones, not by how many calories we eat.

The low-fat, low-calorie diet has already been proven to fail. This is the cruel hoax. Eating less does not result in lasting weight loss. It. Just. Does. Not. Work.

Dr. Fung takes apart the studies that have been completed on obesity, most of them focusing on time frames of less and a year. But obesity typically develops over decades, not in one year. He provides a compelling case for the hormonal obesity theory. Basically, obesity is not caused by an excess of calories, but instead by a body set weight that is too high because of a hormonal imbalance within the body. He goes into great depth about how insulin, cortison, leptin and ghrelin are the major chemical messengers that help determine how our body fat is kept regulated by the body. Please consult his book if this interests you; the science behind this is fascinating and he writes at a level that you do not have to be a clinical researcher to understand.

Insulin is a storage hormone. When we eat, the body releases insulin to store excess glucose from the blood stream into the liver as glycogen, where it can easily be accessed for energy. When there is no intake of food, insulin levels fall and the burning of sugar and fat is turned on. It is quite an elegant “homeostatic” mechanism that keeps our body in balance, and our weight stable. Most people’s weight remains relatively stable, and even people who gain weight tend to do so gradually over time, 1-2 pounds per year.

However, our diets, which have moved away from healthy naturally-occurring fats, toward highly refined carbohydrates (sugar and flour) tend to raise insulin levels to an artificially high level. This results in greater fat storage and a long-term propensity for weight gain. Combine this with the stress hormone cortisol, which also raises insulin levels, we begin to see how these factors contribute to a condition known as insulin resistance. There are some disturbing findings reported about how treatments for diabetes type 2 usually require insulin, and how, even though the blood sugars are better, after standard medical treatment the diabetes actually gets worse. I urge you to read The Obesity Code if you struggle with obesity or type 2 diabetes. I am not a health expert, but I found the research to be helpful in understanding nutritional and lifestyle interventions that lead to reversals in insulin resistance and sustainable weight loss.

For this post I will focus on the recommendation to increase consumption of natural and unprocessed fats in our diet. These include olive oil, butter, coconut oil, beef tallow and avocado. Nuts are also a healthy option, and full-fat dairy can be enjoyed without guilt. We must be careful to avoid inflammatory fats (aka “trans” fats) that are processed such as vegetable, canola, peanut oils, or margarine which are high in omega-6 fatty acids and may have detrimental health effects. Basically, we need to eat “real food” that is minimally processed and balanced in terms of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. It is actually simpler than it seems. If we shop mostly on the outside perimeter of grocery stores, typically we can find those vegetables, meats, full-fat dairy products, eggs and other fresh, healthy options.

butter

I realize some readers may be vegetarian, and while I tried to become vegetarian multiple times in my life, I now believe my tendency toward a.d.d. and anxiety probably do not lend themselves to a vegetarian diet in the long term. One positive side effect I have noticed from eating fat more freely is a sense of calm, satiety, focus on a more regular basis. This contrasts with my struggle with moods starting in my teens, and a cycle of being down, anxious, and more emotionally volatile when I was eating more sugar and flour in my diet. Sadly, so many people struggle with mood issues such as depression or anxiety, and healthy fats may be a key to helping our brains regulate and manufacture healthy neurotransmitters.

One helpful resource if you want to learn more is Nutritional Weight and Wellness and their podcast, Dishing Up Nutrition. As registered dietitians and licensed nutritionists, this team stays very up-to-date on the latest research about dietary interventions to help a variety of conditions. They explain in easy terms how to improve your overall health through dietary interventions. While you may also work with your primary care provider, please know that doctors do not receive much training in nutrition in medical school. Unfortunately, so many of the proactive things we can do to help our overall wellness are not a focus of the medical profession, and they often treat the effects rather than the cause of illnesses.

I work with outstanding nurse practitioner, who is open to supporting my personal experiments with nutrition, especially when based on sound research. She ordered blood tests every 6 months as I was making these adjustments and we both found that, contrary to popular belief, my high-fat diet did not lead to higher cholesterol. Actually my blood pressure was lower, my weight was down, triglycerides were normal and other numbers in the normal range.

Obviously, you need to find what works for you, not take my experience as gospel. Please work with professionals who have the experience and expertise to help you optimize your own health and wellness. For example, if you have nutritional deficiencies such as low Vitamin D (which almost all of us in Minnesota experience in fall/winter) or magnesium deficiency, there may be factors that would benefit from more personalized consultation. Also, getting pro-biotic supplement may help fight sugar cravings and balance your gut, making it easier to switch your diet to more healthy options.

Being willing to experiment with foods you once thought were forbidden, and realizing that you are actually allowed to enjoy food is a beautiful discovery.  Full-fat dairy added to my coffee in the morning is delicious! Knowing I can put half an avocado in salad, add butter to my vegetables, and be liberal with the olive oil has made all of my meals taste better and led to more satisfaction. I no longer have gnawing hunger between meals, and thus I do not have a tendency to overindulge on junk food or to snack. My sleep quality and quantity has improved as well.

Fat is a beautiful thing. I say that as I happily note the spare tire around my middle has been steadily shrinking and my body fat has been reduced. Since my body is no longer “starved” for this important nutrient, I do not hang onto extra fat, and my brain is so much happier and less anxious. Granted, the meditation, yoga and running do also help. But nutrition cannot be underestimated when it comes to keeping our overall moods balanced and our energy high. It has been life-changing for me to realize this, and I am a big proponent of doing a few experiments and mindfully noting how you feel when you make these changes.

Since everyone’s body is different (some people with a dairy sensitivity for example, should not opt for cream in their coffee), please be mindful and intentional with your personal experiments. Seek help for the any major health issues and have confidence that your body, when regulated normally, has wisdom within it. It will give you signals to help know what is nourishing and what is toxic. That said: enjoy the journey!