The Surprising Reason Why Weight Loss May Be Eluding You…

We live in a culture where burning the candle at both ends is praised and exhaustion is worn like a badge of honor. Most people are continually seeking new ways to cram more “stuff” into the 24 hours they are gifted each day. Meanwhile, we are told that we need to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night.

We know the importance of sleep… We KNOW aren’t doing ourselves any favors over the long-term by going to bed late and waking up early in an effort to be more productive… We know all this and yet we still do it!

That was me! I knew my lifestyle of going to bed at 10:30 pm and waking up at 3:00 am was not great for me. Intellectually, I got it, but dialing back my wake up time still seemed to be the best option to cram more hours in my already overstuffed schedule, so I continued this regimen for years. I never correlated my “weight creep” between 2013 and 2017 with my chronically sleep deprived state.

Then, several months ago, while reading through some supporting material for my nutrition coaching certification program, I gleaned some information that was a serious emotional impact moment for me. Since then, ensuring that I get at least 7 hours of sleep each night has been a priority for me – even if it means going to bed at 8pm each night. So, in this post, I want to share what I learned with you. I welcome your feedback as you process it.

For most people weight problems are not a willpower issue; they are a hormonal issue. When the hormones associated with blood sugar (insulin), body composition and muscle growth (growth hormone), hunger and satiety (ghrelin and leptin) get out of balance, weight gain follows as naturally as the sun rising and setting. As it turns out SLEEP can be a major driver in the balance of these important hormones and inadequate sleep can be a recipe for diet disaster no matter how iron-clad our willpower may be.

So dive into it, shall we? In a study done at the University of Chicago, researchers discovered that after only four nights of sleep deprivation (4.5 hours of sleep per night), insulin sensitivity was reduced by 30%… THIRTY PERCENT!!!  This means that the body’s ability to properly use insulin (to move glucose into our cells for use as energy) became completely disrupted. When insulin can’t do its job, blood sugar remains high and the excess gets stored in fat cells and in our organs. This is very bad news!

Another study followed a group of dieters who were put on different sleep schedules. When the dieters received adequate rest, half of the weight they lost was from fat. However, when they cut back on sleep (again to about 4.5 hours per night), the amount of fat lost was cut in half (55% less fat lost) —even though they followed the same diet. The study participants also reported that felt significantly hungrier, were less satisfied after meals, and lacked energy to exercise. So, even if we are doing EVERYTHING right while we are awake, we are sabotaging our weight loss efforts if we cheat ourselves on adequate sleep. AMAZING, right?

Oh, but it gets worse… We’ve talked about our hormonal friends leptin and ghrelin before – leptin is the hormone that helps us feel satisfied so that we don’t overeat. Ghrelin is the hormone that stimulates hunger and makes us want to eat (oh, it also reduces our metabolism – nice…). So, we need to control leptin (increase) and ghrelin (decrease) in our favor to successfully lose weight, but sleep deprivation makes that nearly impossible. Research has shown that sleeping less than six hours triggers the area of your brain that increases your need for food while also depressing leptin and stimulating ghrelin.

But wait, there’s more… When we are sleep deprived, our cortisol levels rise. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is often associated with fat gain (particularly “belly” fat). Cortisol activates the reward center in our brain (the amygdala) that makes us want food. The combination of increased cortisol and increased ghrelin shuts down the areas of our brain that leave us feeling satisfied after a meal, meaning we feel hungry ALL THE TIME—even if we just ate a meal.

And get this:  Even ONE night of sleep deprivation can be enough to impair activity in our frontal lobe, which is the area of our brain that controls complex decision-making. As it turns out, sleep deprivation is a little like being drunk. We just don’t have the mental clarity to make good decisions, specifically with regards to the foods we eat. So, we have impaired decision making coupled with a fired up amygdala that only wants high-calorie, feel good foods and it’s no wonder that our weight loss efforts fail!

So, let’s review… When we are short sleeping – say, less than 5 hours per night (and be honest, how many times in your life have you gotten less than 5 hours of sleep for several nights in a row? I know I’ve done it for MONTHS on end in the past), we are trashing the very hormones that should be working for us regarding our weight and virtually guaranteeing that any efforts we make to lose weight during our waking hours will be unsuccessful.

What if the struggles you have had with your weight were not the result of some failure of willpower or some loss in the genetic lottery, but rather just the biological result of not getting enough SLEEP? What if?

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A Case for Sleep

sleepBefore I started training for physical events, I really never gave the issue of “sleep” much thought.

I mean, I either slept well or I didn’t…

I didn’t really concern myself with whether or not I got in my 8 hours every night.

But as my training progresses, I find that I am much more connected to my body and it’s needs.

I can actually tell when something is out of balance nutritionally, and my sleep cycle is something I am very much tuned in to.

I came across an article by Stew Smith on Military.com that discusses the importance of adequate sleep while training:

“The best training plans will not work if sleep and nutrition are neglected. Without adequate sleep (eight hours a night), there is not enough rest for muscle cell growth and repair. In fact, when you sleep, growth hormone is produced and protein synthesis in the muscles occurs if you eat foods with protein during the day. For adolescents especially, sleep is critical as growth can be impaired when quality and quantity of sleep is lacking. 

Lack of sleep can also affect your mood and increase hormonal stress levels which will have a negative impact on performance. Now, one night of missed sleep is not going to have many negative affects on your performance, but several days in a row or a few weeks of interrupted sleep can lead to symptoms similar to over-training syndrome.”

This leads me to wonder if my conclusion that I was over-training last month was actually more of a sleep issue than a training issue (because, let’s face it, I wasn’t racking up INCREDIBLE volume or anything).

The 4th quarter of last year was incredibly busy and stressful.  There were plenty of LOOOONG days and plenty of nights where sleep got short shrift.  There were also plenty of night when I tossed and turned because of some worry that was niggling at me or because I had some work event that I was stressed about.

In hindsight, I can see where lack of quality SLEEP may have been the underlying issue.

Of course, once Christmas Eve rolled around and we knocked off from work for 10 days, training stopped, stress was reduced, and I slept like a baby.  All issues were resolved.

The lesson I take from this is that I need to look beyond the obvious when I am self-diagnosing.  Sometimes the answer may be much simpler than “Dr. Google” would have me believe.