Sleeping less, gaining weight?

by Cherie Calbom, MS

This article was originally published in February 2007

sleeping woman

(February 2007) — Sleep is the ingredient that a number of researchers are pointing to as the missing link in weight loss plans. It’s the reason some people struggle to lose weight and can’t seem to get their appetite under control.

Sleeping more cannot guarantee that anyone will lose weight, but sleeping less certainly can contribute to weight gain.

A Stanford University sleep researcher says, “Most people think that sleeping too much contributes to making people fat, but we found the opposite is true.” Studies have proven that sleeping too little can cause cravings for the most fattening foods. Numerous scientific studies have shown that when people get a short night of sleep, they eat more food, and most often they choose fattening fare.

Have you tried to get by on five hours of sleep and found you were exceptionally hungry the next day and reaching for all the wrong foods? Perhaps you dragged yourself out of bed early for a meeting and grabbed a sweet roll for that quick burst of energy? Or maybe you stayed up late to study or rehearse for a presentation and found yourself reaching for a triple-mocha-with-whip by mid-morning?

Director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania writes, “We’ve known that people use food as a pick-me-up when they are tired, but now it appears they are hungrier than we realized, and there is a hormonal basis for their eating.”

According to a number of doctors, two chief complaints they hear from their patients are that they don’t sleep enough and are gaining weight. You may be tempted to think that if you stay up late to work or play, you’ll burn up a bunch of calories. But research shows this is not true.

Actually, we typically burn a limited number of calories in the late evening (only about 50 in several hours). But we are throwing major appetite-influencing hormones out of whack. When we don’t sleep enough, ghrelin, the appetite-stimulating hormone, goes up, and leptin, which is the hormone that suppresses our appetite, goes down. Then we want to eat more food — sometimes a lot more.

Humans injected with ghrelin reported sensations of intense hunger and, in one study, when turned loose at a buffet, ate 30 percent more food than they would normally.

Eve Van Cauter, Ph.D., who directs the Research Laboratory on Sleep, Chronobiology, and Neuroendocrinology at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, found that those sleep-deprived individuals with the biggest hormonal changes craved the most fattening foods, such as ice cream, cakes, candy, pasta, bread and salty snacks such as potato chips. There were no cravings for fruits and vegetables.

Other things can give us the munchies too, such as high stress, an overgrowth of yeast, or a shortage of certain minerals. But, it’s been proven in numerous scientific studies that when we don’t sleep the recommended seven to nine hours per night, which most people need, that we end up with a voracious appetite.

A study conducted at Columbia University showed that people who got by on less than four hours of sleep a night were 73 percent more likely to be obese than those who slept seven to nine hours nightly. Even people who get six hours of sleep a night are about 25 percent more apt to be obese.

It’s virtually a badge of honor for some people to get by on five or six hours of sleep per night. We stay up late for work, social events, children’s activities and the Internet. Short on sleep, we wonder why we can’t conquer our cravings.

There are four parts to an effective and successful weight loss plan. Along with a healthful diet plan, exercise and stress reduction, a restful sleep regimen is one of the most important. Many people have found that when they stabilize their sleep by getting the hours their body needs, they can better manage a weight loss plan.

When you’re well rested, you’ll have a much better chance of walking away from fattening foods that once had you hooked. Fruits and vegetables may start looking great. You’ll have more energy to exercise and you’ll also be able to handle stress more effectively. A great night’s sleep can help you balance your hormones, manage life’s challenges, and keep weight off for good.

Cherie Calbom, MS, is the author of 15 books, including Sleep Away the Pounds and the best-selling Juicing for Life. She earned her master’s in nutrition from Bastyr University, where she now serves on the Board of Regents. For more information on how to put Sleep Away the Pounds into action, see

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