The Sleep Loss / Weight Gain Vicious Cycle


In our busy society, it’s often difficult to squeeze in a full night’s sleep. Sleep is vital to clear metabolic waste products out of your nervous system so your brain can function properly, but for some strange reason, we view missing sleep as a badge of honor. We see it as a sign of toughness and dedication to work, school, family, etc., and something to be proud of. Unfortunately, this belief is actually pretty harmful.

Lack of sleep weakens the immune system, increases your risk of dementia, contributes to obesity, and increases the risk of developing diabetes. Worse yet, weight gain contributes to sleep problems, which traps people in a vicious cycle where they have low-quality sleep, eat high-calorie food for comfort (yet feel lousy anyway), and then negatively impact their sleep for the next night. It’s one of the obstacles people overlook when they first try to lose weight. They ignore the importance of sleep and assume they can simply rely on willpower alone to turn things around. Poor sleep absolutely decimates your willpower and sets you up to fail before you even start. Fortunately, you can make some simple changes that will alter your hormonal environment and make it easier to build positive momentum that will take you to your goal.

Sleepless nights lead to bad choices

The main consequence of poor sleep is poor judgement. As we go about our day, a metabolic waste product called adenosine builds up in the brain and nervous system which interferes with proper functioning and causes sleepiness. Caffeine actually works by blocking the adenosine receptors in the brain so you feel more alert. That’s only a short term solution though because the adenosine will still be floating around in there when the caffeine wears off. The only way to clear it out is to get some sleep, and it seems 7 to 8 hours is the ideal amount needed to flush it all out.

Too little sleep the night before throws off your hormonal balance the next day. After getting 6 or less hours of sleep, you’ll produce more of the stress hormone cortisol and appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, you’ll produce less of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin, and your body will be less sensitive to insulin (which makes you more likely to store body fat and increases the risk of diabetes). An interesting study also found that sleep loss increased the release of endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) later in the afternoon and evening of the following day. This hormone binds to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain (like with marijuana) and increases the feelings of pleasure that people derive from eating sweet, salty, and fatty snack foods. Other studies have shown how lack of sleep also simultaneously decreases activity in the region of the frontal cortex responsible for evaluating food choices. All this means that after a poor night of sleep, you’ll be hungrier, you’ll find fattening food more enjoyable, you’ll be less able to make rational food choices, and with poor insulin-sensitivity you’ll store more of it as body fat.

Bad choices lead to sleepless nights

As I mentioned above, excessive weight and diabetes also contributes to poor sleep, which gets people stuck in a vicious cycle of weight gain. Even if they do go to bed on time, they tend to have less restorative sleep, wake up more throughout the night, and then feel tired throughout the day. We’ve been unsure of the reasons for this, but new research shows that it is more likely what people eat, rather than their body weight that negatively impacts the quality of their sleep. The study found that even one week of healthier eating drastically improved the quality of the subjects sleep, even though it was too early for significant changes to their body weight. Another study confirmed the findings that it’s the quality of the food eaten that effects sleep rather than changes in body weight. This study found that low amounts of fiber and high levels of saturated fat and sugar resulted in more fragmented, disrupted sleep and that improving the quality of the subject’s diet led to deeper, more restorative sleep within 5 days.

This all makes perfect sense to me because I’ve seen it hundreds of times before. Within a week of improving my client’s diets, they all comment on feeling more energetic throughout the day and that their cravings are diminished. Just a few simple changes to your diet will allow deeper sleep which will in turn improve your willpower and energy levels the next day. You can read more about structuring your diet here if you wish, but the quick version to improve your sleep is:

  • At least half of each meal should come from vegetables.
  • Try to replace the fats in beef, pork, and chicken with healthy fats from plants and healthy animal-fats like those in fish and grass-fed beef.
  • About 20 percent of your plate should be protein. You can still eat the meats above, just trim the visible fat on the beef, pork, and chicken.

You still need to make an effort to carve out at least 7 hours of time for sleep to truly see benefits, but an improved diet and sleep cycle will change your personal momentum very quickly. Once you get your body working for you instead of against you, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to keep moving forward towards your goal.

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