Sleep, Weight and Your Health

Getting good sleep is essential for proper functioning on the job, at school, and living out our everyday activities. According to the Center for Disease Control, “Sleep is increasingly recognized as important to public health, with sleep insufficiency linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors. Persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity.” Getting the proper amount and type of sleep is just as important as the foods you eat and the amount of physical activity you get regularly.

Adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. The average adult sleeps just six hours and 30 minutes per night during the workweek. There are many reasons for this, but we as American’s are still getting much less rest than we need for good health. This may have some severe consequences, in particular on weight control and decreasing the risk of metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance and diabetes.

The Institute of Medicine estimates that 50 to 70 million Americans chronically suffer from a disorder of sleep and wakefulness, hindering daily functioning and adversely affecting health and longevity and that sleep deprivation is a substantial public health issue.

The Anatomy of Sleep

The quality of sleep, along with the amount of time spent sleeping as well as the duration may affect endocrine, metabolic, and neurological functions related to health. Sleep follows a pattern of alternating rapid eye movement (REM), known as stage R, and non-REM sleep throughout the night in a cycle that repeats about every 90 minutes. 75% of the time sleeping is spent in non-REM sleep and 25% in REM sleep.

The cycles vary between adults and children. Children spend more time in the deep stages of sleep compared to adults. Generally, most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, while school-aged children need 10 to 11. Typically, teens need 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep per night.

Sleepiness is regulated by the physiological need for sleep combined with the body’s circadian rhythm. Several factors may cause a change in one’s sleep patterns, such as light, exercise, meal times, temperature, and melatonin. Disruptions in these sleep patterns or circadian rhythms can lead to several different hormonal and metabolic changes that can result in diabetes, weight gain or obesity and maybe lower life expectancy.

Some of the most common causes of such disruptions are obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and narcolepsy. Other medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic bronchitis, may also cause sleep disruptions. Caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, shift work, or practicing poor sleep hygiene can all contribute to the problem.

How Does Sleep Affect Weight

Research on the association between sleep and weight gain has shown that there may be a genetic connection. Several studies have indicated that both insufficient sleep (less than five or six hours) and excessive sleep (more than nine or 10 hours) are associated with weight gain, but not all studies define insufficient and excessive sleep the same way. There may be a cycle that exists in that sleep deprivation may cause weight gain, inducing sleep disturbances that further reduce sleep duration.

Recently, short sleep was linked with an increased risk of weight gain or obesity and increased fat mass after a five to seven-year follow-up in both children and adults, although this association was particularly strong in children. Studies evaluating whether increasing sleep duration and quality may be an effective strategy for weight loss or weight maintenance are currently being done. Also, whether reduced physical activity related to daytime sleepiness plays a significant role in weight gain associated with sleep insufficiency is presently being researched.

Appetite and Sleep

Sleep quantity and quality have been shown to play a role in regulating the hormones ghrelin and leptin; both are hormones that play a role in controlling appetite and digestion. In short, Ghrelin appears to be involved in the long-term homeostatic control of weight, gastrointestinal motility, and the food reward system. Leptin referred to as “the satiety hormone” and is made by adipose (fat) cells that help to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger. Leptin is opposed by the actions of the hormone ghrelin, which is referred to as “the hunger hormone.”

Sleep deprivation studies have shown that sleep loss can cause an increase in the ratio of ghrelin to leptin, enhancing appetite and, specifically, increasing cravings for carbohydrate foods. A vast majority of studies have found that sleep restriction leads to increased caloric consumption. A study from the Mayo Clinic showed that healthy young adults whose sleep was shortened by about one-third ate more than 500 extra calories per day compared with controls, while their leptin levels increased and ghrelin levels slightly decreased. The study authors suggested that the increased energy intake might have been responsible for the changes seen in leptin and ghrelin levels in this study.

Sleep duration, sleep quality, and the timing of sleep may affect patterns of hormone production, including insulin, cortisol, glucagon, catecholamine's, growth hormone, leptin, and ghrelin. Energy production is regulated by the combination of circadian rhythms as well as food intake and exercise. Numerous studies have shown insufficient sleep is positively associated with diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance.

Good Sleep with Good Nutrition

Although more research needs to be done to prove the effectiveness of eating these foods to promote good sleep, there is some evidence that they have helped some to see improvements with sleep issues. In particular, foods that contain tryptophan (an amino acid), whole-grain carbs (which boost serotonin production), certain minerals (like calcium and magnesium, which may have a calming effect), and some herbs can help you relax and sleep better.

If you want a night of sound slumber, consider having a light sleep-inducing snack about an hour before bedtime. Good choices include:

Half a Banana and a Handful of Almonds:

The combination of tryptophan, carbs, and magnesium can help make you drowsy.

Whole-Grain Crackers with Peanut Butter Warm Milk:

Thanks to the dairy drink’s tryptophan, calcium, and magnesium, warm milk may help you sleep better. Just make sure it’s a small cup and not a large glass, so you’re not waking up to use the bathroom.

Half a Turkey Sandwich:

Use whole-wheat bread (complex carbs and magnesium) and a couple of slices of turkey (turkey has tryptophan).

Herbal (Decaf) Tea:

Chamomile, passionflower, and valerian teas each have a sedating effect. For an extra dose of calm, add a teaspoon of honey, which contains tryptophan.


If you’re going to have a snack before bedtime, don’t overdo it. Just a small meal is what you need to help relax and sleep better. You don’t want to be tossing and turning because your stomach is upset or have to use the bathroom because you drank too much liquid.

We all lead busy lives that can hinder our ability to get good sleep. Increasing rates of disease that interfere with sleep are creating a public health crisis. Obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and other illnesses linked to sleep loss continue to rise. Practicing good sleep hygiene is just as important as proper diet and physical activity and is just as much an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. The National Sleep Foundation has some useful tips and resources on how you can improve your sleep quality as well as current treatments and recommendations for those with some common sleep disorders.​​

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