If you’re not getting results from your diet, or you’re finding yourself gaining weight un-expectedly, sleep is usually not something many consider, yet there is a starling correlation between those who sleep less than 7 hours a night and the current rates of obesity and overweight in the western world.
Could how you sleep really be sabotaging your diet? And if so what steps can you take today to prevent gaining weight as a result?
How much sleep are you getting?
Sleep is one of the most under appreciated functions of our body, and judging by the stats happens to be the most sacrificed in order to fit more in the day.
What makes these statistics all the more worrying is that they don’t take into consideration users sleep cycles, which lasts about 90 minutes and during that time we move through five stages of sleep.
If a sleep cycle is broken you don’t get the full benefit of that time sleeping, so chances are that even more people are sleep deficient because they are not getting the minimum amount of un-broken sleep cycles in those 7 hours or less.
Is sleep really that important? I’m really busy right now, can’t I make it up later?
This is something we hear a lot, and if you are around high achievers you’ll sometimes hear them boast about how little sleep they get or need.
The problem with sleep depravation is that it’s very easy to compensate in the short term with a high dose of caffeine to keep your energy up throughout the day. And after a while you can get used to the feeling of mild fatigue associated with less than optimal sleep.
But just as a credit card accumulates interest when the balance isn’t paid off, things can escalate when you don’t pay off your sleep debt…
The effects of poor sleep on fat loss and satiety
In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, dieters where put on different sleep schedules. When the subjects received adequate sleep, half the weight lost was from fat. However when they cut back on sleep, the amount of fat loss dropped by 50% even though they were on the same diet.
Not only that, but they felt hungrier, and less full after meals.
Another study found that sleep depravation can not only cause you to feel hungrier, but amplify cravings for sweet or savoury snacks overriding your best intentions.
Fat cells need sleep to function properly
Sleep depravation sounds extreme, but it’s easy as cumulating four days of late nights and early mornings. And by that time, your lack of sleep could be affecting your insulin sensitivity.
According to University of Chicago researchers, just four days of poor sleep (also known as a typical week for many…) caused insulin sensitivity to drop more than 30%. This difference is comparable to the difference in cells from obese vs lean persons, or people with or without diabetes!
This is bad news because when you have normal insulin sensitivity, your fat cells act on fatty acids and lipids to prevent fat storage. But when you become insulin resistant, your muscles, fat and liver cells no longer respond properly to insulin, which leads to fat storage in all the wrong places.
Over time this can lead to weight gain, diabetes and health complications.
Poor sleep and the link with food cravings
It’s a common misconception to think that hunger and snacking are just feats of willpower alone. Yes, there are powerful mental tricks to curb cravings but your hunger is largely controlled by two key hormones: Leptin and Ghrelin.
Leptin is a hormone produced by your fat cells, which signals to your brain that the body has enough energy stores. In a sense it works like an appetite suppressor.
Ghrelin on the other hand is an appetite increaser, and it is released in the stomach to signal to the brain that the body needs more food.
These hormones are complex, but seem to have a cascading effect: Leptin seems to have an action on ghrelin, and the more ghrelin you produce, the hungrier you feel, this also seems to have an effect on your metabolism and fat storage mechanisms.
So what could affect your Leptin and ghrelin levels? You guessed it, sleep…
According to a research paper, sleeping less than six hours has been found to lower leptin production and stimulate ghrelin release, resulting in hunger pangs and cravings.
Sleep depravation and decision making ability
There is also another dimension we haven’t explored which is related to food cravings, and it’s how lack of sleep can affect our brains ability to make decisions.
In fact a study found that just one night of poor sleep was enough to impair the prefrontal cortex which controls decision making!
This has huge consequences, as a little sleep deprivation could be the difference between stopping your car before the red light, and thinking you can gas it with potentially devastating consequences…
As you can expect, this will magnify cravings, and weaken your self control…a recipe for diet disaster…
Sleep sabotages your workouts
Have you ever been pumped to workout the day after a night out on the town? Me neither… Sleep plays an important role in helping your body recover, without it your muscles will be sore and you will lack the energy needed to motivate your workout.
Not only that, but sleep is essential for releasing growth hormone which is used to speed up post exercise recovery and to promote the muscle building processes. Sleep deprivation short circuits these systems leading to a vicious cycle of muscle loss, low energy, and slower metabolism.
How can you improve your sleep routine starting today?
Sleep optimisation is a massive topic, and there are many tactics you can compound to maximise the quality and length of your sleep. For now lets run through some fundamentals you can start implementing right now to improve your sleep, and go back to a positive sleep balance.
What to avoid to improve the quality of your sleep
Plan your caffeine earlier in the day
Did you know Caffeine has a 5.7h half life? This means that if you consume 200mg of caffeine at mid day, by 6pm you will still have 100mg in your bloodstream. Now genetics and body build will play a role in how fast caffeine metabolises, but it’s important to plan your coffee intake well in advance of your bedtime for optimal sleep.
Alcohol can mess up your REM sleep & sleep quality
A review of 27 studies found that whilst alcohol does help some people fall asleep quicker, it reduces the REM sleep necessary to wake feeling refreshed. Another side effect is that alcohol is a diuretic, which means it encourage the body to lose extra fluid, which will result in dehydration and bathroom breaks that will disrupt your sleep.
Smoking and sleep quality
If you are a smoker, or suffer from second hand smoke…Aside from the usual negative health consequences of smoking, there are some sleep specific issues to consider too.
First smoking has been found to alter your natural circadian rhythm, the effects of which can extend beyond poor sleep to increasing your risk of developing depression, anxiety and mood disorders.
Another study has found that smoking increases your chances of suffering sleep apnea by 2.5 times, as the inhaled smoke irritates the tissues in the nose and throat, causing swelling restricting the airflow.
Smoking has also been linked to a higher incidence of restless sleep, increasing the percentage of light sleep vs restorative deep sleep necessary to wake up feeling refreshed.
Another misconception around cigarettes is that they act purely as a relaxant. In fact nicotine is both a drug and a stimulant, which can make it difficult to fall asleep at night, potentially cause insomnia and at the end of your sleep disrupt your natural sleep wake cycle when the withdrawal effects kick in.
Watching TV before bed
According to the sleep foundation, 95% of Americans report to watching something on a screen before bed, are you one of them?
Whether it’s your favourite TV series on Netflix, or catching up on Facebook on your phone or tablet, or even catching up late on some computer work these can all affect your sleep in a multitude of way.
First the blue light emitted from your electronic devices has been found to affect your hormones, disrupting the secretion of melatonin.
Next up is the fact that consuming entertainment or working late will make you go to sleep later, further reducing the amount of complete sleep cycles you can squeeze from your night.
Lastly, by overloading your brain with stimulating visual stimulus you are making it much harder for your brain to settle down into a peaceful night of sleep.
Some of our favourite pre-sleep tactics to improve the quality of your sleep
Here are some of our favourite pre-sleep routines which you can easily add to the end of your day:
End the day reading a book, this low tech habit will help your brain settle down before sleep. Along with this we recommend a “shutdown complete” approach to switching off all electronics at least 2h before bed.
Keep your room cool, did you know its harder for your body to down regulate your temperature than up regulate it? Keeping your room cooler will help you sleep deeper and with less effort.
Get comfortable: Invest in a comfortable mattress, soft sheets and a good quality pillow to reap the benefits day in and day out.
Hydrate an hour before bed as you will naturally get dehydrated throughout the night.
Lastly meditation or breath counting is a great way to slow down your brain, and speed up the time necessary to fall asleep.
And a few shortcuts to speed up the process…
If you are still finding it difficult to fall asleep or maintain a good nights sleep, taking 5-HTP may be beneficial. Also drinking camomile tea and consuming potassium rich carbohydrates pre-sleep may also help even out the odds in your favour.
 Zhang, L. Chest, February 2008; vol 133: pp 427-432.
News release, American College of Chest Physicians.