The NHS guidance on sleep is clear: adults need between seven and nine hours of quality sleep each night. Of course, we’ll all experience sleeplessness or a disrupted night from time to time, and if it’s only an occasional occurrence, it’s not going to do us any lasting harm. But when the quality and/or quantity of our sleep is consistently poor, it can be extremely detrimental to our overall health and well-being.
A lack of sleep can impact us in many ways – impeding our brain function, compromising our immune system and affecting our mood, to name but a few. But what many people don’t realise is that sleep also has a huge influence on our metabolism, our fitness levels and our weight.
And here’s a truth bomb: if you’re trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, the amount and quality of sleep you get is likely to be just as important as your diet and the amount of exercise you take.
Why is sleep important for weight loss?
Many, many studies have looked at the link between sleep and weight – and time and again it’s been scientifically proven that getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best tools we have for preventing weight gain. One piece of research, for example, showed that people who got more sleep actually consumed fewer calories.
The reasons behind this are complex, but they can be broadly categorised into three key areas that are negatively impacted by a lack of sleep: brain function, hormonal activity and lifestyle. I think it’s really helpful to understand why there’s a correlation between getting enough sleep and losing weight, so let’s take a look at each of these factors.
Sleep deprivation and the brain
As is brilliantly explained in this article from Sleepstation.org, there are two key regions of the brain that are affected by sleep deprivation. One is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making and self-control, and the other is the amygdala, which controls our emotions.
When we don’t get enough sleep, brain activity reduces in the prefrontal cortex and increases in the amygdala. As a result, our willpower goes down and we are less able to exercise self-control, while at the same time our emotions are heightened and we’re more responsive to things that give us pleasure.
Essentially, when we’re tired, we get more excited about all those tempting-but-unhealthy foods, and far less able to show restraint. So, if we like chocolate but are usually able to resist eating the whole bar, that becomes nigh-on impossible after a bad night’s sleep!
Sleep deprivation and hormones
While all of that is going on in the brain, our hormones are also reacting to our sleep-deprived state.
Ghrelin and leptin are the hormones responsible for regulating our appetite: ghrelin makes us feel hungry, and leptin makes us feel full. These two hormones work together like a see-saw, and we need adequate sleep to keep the balance right.
When we don’t get enough sleep our leptin levels decrease, which sends signals to the brain to tell us we’re hungry, even though we don’t actually need the extra energy. We end up consuming more calories than we expend, so the excess is stored in the body as fat reserves.
On the flip side, our levels of ‘the hungry hormone’ ghrelin would normally decrease while we sleep. But when we don’t get enough rest, these levels don’t reduce as much as they should – again, this results in us feeling hungry even when our body is adequately fuelled.
And then there’s insulin, the hormone that helps regulate our blood-sugar levels and regulates our body’s storage of fat. Put simply, without enough sleep our body can become resistant to insulin, resulting in excess blood sugar that then gets stored as fat.
Sleep deprivation and lifestyle
It goes without saying that when we don’t get enough sleep, we feel tired and lethargic, with little energy or inclination to exercise. So our activity levels go down and we burn off fewer calories.
And of course, if we’re sleeping less it means our ‘awake window’ is longer, which gives us more opportunity to respond to all those confused ‘hungry’ signals our tired brain and body are sending us.
There’s also another important factor at play – stress. When we don’t get enough sleep we often feel more stressed, and this can also cause us to reach for unhealthy food or start comfort eating as a coping mechanism.
Three tips to get a better night’s sleep
Now we’ve looked at the reasons WHY sleep issues can lead to weight gain, it’s time to start talking about solutions. What can you do if you’re struggling with sleep deprivation?
It’s a topic that comes up a lot within the Slimpod community, and these are the three tips I find myself sharing time and time again:
- Eliminate social media before bed
Research has shown that 70% of us check Facebook before bed, and yet it’s also proven that people who look at social media two hours before going to bed have poorer sleep than those who don’t!
Think about it – you start browsing Facebook or Instagram and suddenly you’ve entered a rabbit hole that’s hard to climb out of. Or you see something that gets you agitated and negatively impacts your mood – not ideal preparation for a good night’s rest! Switching off tech in general two hours before you want to sleep honestly does make a huge difference.
- Look at your nighttime routine and environment
If sleep trouble is a new problem for you, have a think about whether anything has changed in your nighttime routine. Are the kids going to bed later than they used to, for example, resulting in less time for you to unwind?
Consider the few hours before you go to bed and really think about your behaviours and environment and how they might be impacting your ability to nod off. Are you eating dinner or drinking caffeine too close to bedtime? Is the temperature in your bedroom as you like it? Are the light levels conducive to sleep? All of these factors can play a part.
- Prepare your mind and body for rest
To be able to drift off into restorative sleep we need a calm mind and relaxed body, but we all achieve that in different ways.
For some people, a hot bath or lavender pillow spray does the trick. For others, it might be meditation or a spot of yoga. It might be something you’ve tried before or something completely new, but invest the time in finding what works for you – it really will pay dividends.
Of course, if you’re on the Slimpod programme you also have access to Chillpod, our stress-busting download designed to help ease anxiety and promote relaxation. It’s a core part of our weight-loss programme, because reducing stress and getting adequate rest play such a vital role in losing weight. It’s also perfect for listening to whenever you need to ease your mind and body into sleep, and many Slimpodders tell us they frequently use it as part of their nighttime routine.