Can Poor Sleep Cause Weight Gain?

by Lori Poceta, NP, nurse practitioner

Ways adults develop healthy sleep habits.

by Lori Poceta, NP, nurse practitioner

Good rest is fundamental to good health on all levels. Sleep is the body’s opportunity to recharge, repair damage and prepare for the coming day. Without it, our bodies fall out of sync. And our health — including our metabolic health — can be at risk.

Poor sleep equals weight gain

There have been a number of studies linking poor sleep with weight gain.

Recently, researchers at the University of Colorado investigated how sleep duration affects food intake. In the study, two groups either slept for five or nine hours. Both groups were given access to as much food as they wanted. The good news is that the people who stayed up late and slept less burned more calories. The bad news is they ate a lot more, including snacking after dinner, and gained as much as two pounds in a week.

Apparently, the restricted sleep was throwing off their internal clocks, which influenced their eating habits, leading to increased calorie intake, especially late in the day. They also ate more high carbohydrate foods. Other studies have shown that shortened hours of sleep alter the hormones that control appetite.

Lack of sleep does more than alter behavior; it also seems to change the way fat cells operate. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, fat cells in people who slept fewer than five hours became more resistant to insulin, the hormone that tells our cells to take in more blood sugar, or glucose. Without a sound glucose metabolism, people are at risk for a variety of conditions, such as metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes.

Health risks of sleep deprivation

These have been relatively small studies, but they are not isolated. The Nurses’ Health Study, which followed thousands of women for 16 years, found that people who slept five hours had a 15 percent higher risk of being obese than those who slept seven hours. A similar study found that women who did shift work were at higher risk for both obesity and diabetes.

It’s also worth noting that timing is important. In other words, when you sleep can be as important as how long you sleep. A number of studies have shown that people who work at night are at higher risk for some diseases. Shift work seems to disrupt production of melatonin, an important hormone that helps regulate our daily circadian rhythms.

So it’s important to incorporate good rest into any diet plan. Develop a routine, with regular meals, scheduled exercise and a fixed bed time (and, ideally, a consistent rise time). Also, steer clear of bright lights in the hours before bedtime, which can disrupt melatonin production. Don’t let lack of sleep translate into more food.

This health and wellness tip was provided by Lori Poceta, a nurse practitioner who specializes in diabetes and endocrinology at Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management.