If you’re going to lose weight for good (and keep it off), there are some essential long-term habits that I think you should make part of your lifestyle. One of the most important is getting the right amount of quality sleep each night. Perhaps you’ve heard about the overall health benefits of sleep or that it helps with weight loss but aren’t sure how. I’d read about sleep and weight loss dozens of times in magazines, health/wellness books and on social media but didn’t understand how the connection worked or how much attention I needed to pay to sleep.
Many health experts recommend getting a good night’s sleep as a way to achieve sustainable weight loss, so I thought I’d dig a little deeper to find out why. How does getting more sleep help you lose weight? How much sleep do we need to get these weight-loss benefits, and what are the best strategies for getting a good night’s sleep?
Sleep Deprivation and Weight Loss
Less Sleep: Less Fat Loss + More Body Weight
Let’s start at the beginning. What does the research say about the relationship between sleep and weight loss? Researchers have found an association between getting too little sleep and having more body weight and body fat. Studies show that regularly getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night increases your risk of obesity. This association between lack of sleep and obesity may be caused by a combination of getting less physical activity (because the sleep-deprived person is so tired) and an increase in calorie intake during the longer waking hours.
However, even for people who are dieting and eating fewer calories than their body needs (caloric deficit), sleep is important. Studies on sleep restriction among people on a calorie restriction found that not getting enough sleep reduces the effects of calorie restriction on body weight and fat. That means that getting less sleep than you need could negate the calorie restriction you are doing each day and reduce your chances of losing pounds and body fat.
Other studies have found the reverse to be true: more sleep was associated with a loss of body fat for those who dieted. Since we know how difficult it can be to maintain a calorie deficit and lose pounds consistently, it’s important to make sure that everything else we are doing (including sleeping) supports our weight loss efforts.
Less Sleep: Poor Appetite Control and Metabolism
When sleep is restricted, data shows changes in appetite regulatory hormones (leptin and ghrelin), making people who sleep less prone to weight regain. One study showed this relationship was found for people who reduced their sleep by only one hour each night for five nights of the week (and slept more over the weekends). Even when someone catches up on their sleep on the weekends, it may not help to reverse the effects of the weekday sleep restriction on their efforts to lose weight.
Hormones associated with our appetite and metabolism (leptin and ghrelin), which play a role in our feelings of hunger, are affected by lack of sleep. Sleep studies have shown that ghrelin levels can increase, and leptin levels decrease when someone gets too little sleep. This combination may increase a person’s appetite, making it harder for them to stay on their calorie-restricted food plan. Also, sleep-deprived people may seek out more food (including off-diet foods) due to these changing hormone levels’ effect on the brain’s hunger signals.
Less Sleep: More Risk for Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
There has even been some research that sleep loss can impair our bodies’ ability to respond to insulin and process glucose properly, perhaps making us more prone to health problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes.
So the research is there to help us understand the importance of sleep for losing weight, maintaining lean muscle, and regulating hormones that control our appetite and metabolism. Not everything is understood about the connection between sleep and weight loss, but research does show a complex relationship between poor sleep and obesity and other adverse health conditions. Enough reason to get a good night’s sleep.
How Much Sleep Do I Need?
Aim for 7+ Hours: The consensus seems to be that most adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night. It sounds reasonable, but with the demands of work, family, exercise, meal preparation/chores, and leisure time activities/vacations, it can be difficult to get 7 hours of sleep each night. Just like sticking to your food plan, getting the 7 hours consistently is the key. You can’t make up for sleep by sleeping later on the weekends. It throws off your sleep schedule and makes it more difficult for the body to regulate hormones and appetite. So aiming for a consistent 7 hours (or more) is our goal for optimal health (and greater potential for successful weight loss).
Best Sleep Strategies for Weight Loss:
Stay on a Regular Sleep Schedule: Just like the consistency you strive for in reducing your calorie intake to an appropriate level and maintaining a workout routine, staying consistent with the amount of sleep you get each night is essential. Your goal is to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night (and do that each night) without getting more or less sleep over the weekend. The body will respond to this regular sleep pattern and give you the best chance of making sure your calorie restriction efforts result in consistent weight and fat loss (while preserving muscle).
Don’t Eat Too Late at Night: Try to stop eating at least two hours before bed. I’ve found that going to bed on a full stomach does not usually result in getting a good night’s sleep. As many of you know, I suffered from horrible heart palpitations when I entered perimenopause. I found three factors determined the degree to which I had these scary nighttime palpitation episodes: eating too much sugar, drinking too much alcohol and eating too close to my bedtime. While I have reduced my sugar and alcohol intake significantly (and enjoy them only occasionally now), I’ve seen a return of my heart palpitations when I do have sugar or alcohol after 4 pm. It’s almost as if a switch has been turned on after I eat or drink later in the day, so I’m careful about the timing of sweet treats, coffee and alcohol. Food has powerful effects on the body, so try to give your body a chance to digest your last meal well before bedtime.
Movement, Meditation and Mindfulness: Winding down after a busy day through gentle movement, meditation or mindfulness, can help you get into a relaxed state before bedtime. If you work out after 8 pm, I think the best exercises are walking, stretching or yoga. I would stay away from intense cardio or strength training right before bedtime since they have an energizing effect on the body. Walking will reduce stress, aid with digestion and get your muscles nice and loose and ready for bed.
One of the best mindfulness activities I do in the evening is thinking about or writing about the things I’m most grateful for. No matter how hard my day is, I can ALWAYS find something to be thankful for. When I’m honest with myself, it isn’t hard to cultivate this gratitude, even in my darker moments. And yes, having good health, enjoying personal freedom and having the love of friends and family are always a comfort (and high on my list).
Sleep in a Cool, Dark Place (that feels cozy): We tend to sleep best in a slightly cooler environment, and limiting our exposure to light by making sure we have a dark bedroom can help us fall asleep. I also limit screen light and noise by keeping my phone off and out of the room so that my body can truly rest. I find that getting at least 7 hours of quality sleep means I’m more productive during the day (and that’s when I get the best use out of my technology).
Dealing with Insomnia or Restless Sleep: We all can get insomnia or have a restless night of sleep from time-to-time, especially during periods of stress. Sources of restless sleep that I’ve noticed are anxiety and worry, overeating or drinking too much alcohol or coffee before bed, unresolved feelings of anger or stress from the day and the effects of hormonal changes caused by menopause. Utilizing one or more of these relaxation techniques (controlled breathing, meditation/mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation and imagery) may help.
If I can’t fall asleep or stay asleep, I will get out of bed and try one of these relaxation exercises. I go to another room instead of staying in bed (where I’m apt to get agitated that I can’t sleep). I do these relaxation exercises in a dark room until I feel tired again, and then I return to the bedroom. You want to associate your bedroom with sleep, so going to another room when you can’t sleep helps you keep a positive association between sleep and the bedroom.
Putting All the Pieces Together
By now, you probably know that good sleep habits are foundational for good health. They fit, as an important piece, into the larger picture of maintaining healthy habits. Whether those healthy habits are for better overall health, weight loss, muscle building or better mental health, sleep is an important factor in building a healthy lifestyle. The other pieces: cardio (read my base cardio article), strength training and healthy eating, work with other healthy habits like adequate sleep, drinking water and stress reduction to ensure that you enjoy good health.
I wish you a good night’s sleep tonight—and all the nights to come. Please add to my list of sleep strategies by commenting below. I’d love to know what works for you. Connect with me on social media for daily tips and strategies to get healthy habits on repeat in your life!
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