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SLEEP: The Magic Bullet of Fat Loss

Approximately 1/3 of Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep/night, while only 7-8% sleep 8 hours/night. Basically, this means almost everyone is sleep deprived. And sleep deprivation, particularly when chronic, (meaning you get less than 6 hours/night, every night) leads to big problems. Big problems like obesity, cardiovascular risk, metabolic risk, premature aging, and even cancer.

Really want to fall off your seat? Know that 81 of 89 studies looking at sleep deprivation have all had the same finding: lack of sleep increases obesity by 55%. Think about that for a minute. You could be doing ‘all the right things’, like eating your vegetables and meats, taking good supplements, weight training, etc, and still have over 50% risk of becoming obese if you aren’t sleeping properly. This is important to know!

Additionally, we’ve all know that it takes discipline to eat well and workout, long-term. Well, guess what? Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase impulsivity, and cause people to become less likely to work for something that they otherwise would. So, say you ‘want to’ eat healthy and go to the gym every day, generally leading a healthy life. Sleep deprivation has been shown to halt your desire in its tracks - bringing on what I call the “I’ll do it tomorrow” syndrome. It happens every week! You vow to start on Monday, yet when Monday rolls around, you’re tired from the weekend and lack desire to go workout. In your fatigued state, you throw on the sweat pants and grab a bowl of popcorn. Sure, discipline is part of what has to be developed here, but increased sleeping time every night has actually been shown to increase motivation, and that ‘get up and go’ attitude.

Sleep - The Magic Bullet of Fat Loss
Sleep may be your magic bullet. Let’s take a look at why sleep is so important for weight loss.

A lot of it has to do with physiology. Specifically, sleep deprivation causes some pretty significant disruptions in how our body was meant to work. Most of us are living life quite opposite to how we were meant to. This is often referred to as living a ‘broken lifestyle’, and living in ‘discordance’ with biology. Discordance means in disagreement with. Our bodies, brains, and hormones are genetically hardwired to be awake, productive, and moving around during the daylight hours, while being slower paced, more relaxed, and sleeping during the dark hours of the night. What most of us do now is opposite to this - we spend the daylight hours sitting indoors working, barely moving, then go home after work, when it’s dark, and keep ourselves up in front of the TV well into the night hours.

This pattern of being indoors and sedentary during the day, AND indoors and sedentary at night, really plays tricks with our brain. During the day, our brain wants sunlight exposure, and exercise. It wants these 2 things because it then knows it’s meant to produce all sorts of ‘get up and go’ hormones (such as cortisol) get stuff done, and generally be productive. Now, at night, when the sun goes down, our brain wants the opposite to occur. It wants to get away from light (particularly artificial light), and produce ‘rest and digest’ hormones that help us wind down and get to sleep. Hormones like melatonin, which is the well known ‘sleep hormone’. Hormones like cortisol (remember, it’s one of the ‘get up and go’ hormones) are supposed to really drop off at night.

Problem is, when we stay up late watching TV, reading on the iPad, checking email, facebook, and generally remaining in ‘work mode’, our brain gets tricked into thinking it’s still day time. At this point, rest and digest hormones aren’t made, melatonin production is very low, cortisol production remains high, and our need to sleep is hidden. The cycle of sleep deprivation begins the day you wake up feeling like you never even went to sleep.

When cortisol levels remain higher than normal at night, it tells the body several things:

  1. Adapt to stress, please, because we’re stressed. Adapting to stress is a catabolic, muscle-wasting type of thing, which also creates problems for the immune system.
  2. Metabolism, please slow down. The thyroid gland is our master metabolism gland, and it doesn’t like chronically elevated cortisol. Cortisol alters enzymes that convert T4 into T3 (T3 being the active thyroid hormone). If your brain is up all night, charged by artificial light, your thyroid will usually downregulate itself, which affects metabolism.
  3. Feed me. Cortisol causes another hormone, called insulin, to rise. Insulin is a master fat-storing hormone, and usually creates desire for sugary foods. Does the pattern of late-night junk food snacking ring a bell?

Furthermore, 2 other hormones are involved which really seal the deal. They’re called Leptin, and Ghrelin.

Ghrelin is a hunger hormone, released when we’re hungry or fasting. It encourages appetite. After meals, ghrelin decreases. Leptin, on the other hand, is an appetite suppressing hormone, meant to peak at night. These hormones work in sync, depending on food availability and whether we’ve had a good night sleep. Now, here’s the kicker. A recent study took a group of healthy young men, and subjected them to sleep deprivation. Leptin and Ghrelin adjusted automatically so that hunger increased, and the men became more likely to store fat and less likely to burn energy. There was also an immediate impairment in glucose regulation.

To really dial in sleep and get your mojo going on again, here are some excellent tips to improve sleep quality:

1Determine your sleep schedule. What time do you get up in the morning? Granted you want to aim for 8 hours of sleep, you will need to be in bed, asleep, by 10 if you get up at 6. Once you determine your sleep schedule, stick to it.

2About an hour before bed, begin to unplug and unwind. Turn your phone to silence, close out email and work, turn off the TV and get away from the computer. Your brain won’t let you sleep if you’ve been looking at bright lights all night.

3Dim your household lights. Do relaxing things like read, or stretch. Heck, everyone talks about improving their flexibility anyway, so stretch every night!

4Keep your bedroom cool, and as dark as possible. Ideally, so dark that you can’t see anything at all. Like a cave!

5Drop your body temperature. Take a cool shower, or, lie down on the couch with an ice pack under your neck. Our body temperature is meant to naturally drop at night, so assisting with this will help you fall asleep.

6If possible, get sun exposure during the day. If you live in a state with minimal sun during the winter months, at least try get outside to exercise during the day. Otherwise, hit the gym during ‘daylight’ hours, so that your body gets bright light exposure during the day.

Till next time,
Ashleigh Gass

Brilliant Fitness and Nutrition, INC.
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Medical Exercise Specialist
Certified Sports Nutritionist from The International Society of Sports Nutrition
Masters: Human Nutrition
Certified Clinical Nutritionist


Resources used for this article:

  1. Dan’s Plan (Baron et.al. 2011)
  2. Sheen AJ, et al.  Relationship between sleep quality and glucose regulation in normal humans.  Am J Physiol 1996;271:E261-E270.
  3. Spiegel K, Leproult R, Cauter EV.  Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function.  Lancet 1999;354:1435-1439.