Weight loss can be an uphill battle. And if you aren’t getting a good night’s sleep, the challenge may even greater. When you are exhausted from lack of sleep, you’re not likely to have the energy to exercise or prepare healthy food. Lack of sleep can also mess with your hormonal balance.
Researchers are also finding that not sleeping enough or not sleeping well may make healthy weight maintenance more difficult and increase the risk of obesity. So how do you sleep better to get the essential rest that you need? Try these strategies for sleeping more soundly at night.
Sleep and Weight Loss
There are several different ways that poor sleep or lack of sleep can play a role in reaching or maintaining a healthy weight. When you understand the impact that sleep can have, you may feel inspired to set up and honor a new bedtime ritual.
Unhealthy Food Choices
Research suggests that sleep can play a key role in our ability to make better food choices. In fact, not getting sufficient sleep may make mindful eating more challenging. Mindful eating refers to a practice of thoughtful observation and judgement-free awareness when choosing and eating food. It helps some people to reach their healthy weight loss goals.
Some studies have shown that when we are sleep-deprived, changes in the brain my alter the way we relate to and choose food. A 2014 study found that when participants were sleep-deprived, they reported no changes in hunger, but imaging studies found neural changes that were significant.
Specifically, the research showed increased activity in a region of the brain involved in appetite choice, evaluation, and regulation. Both food desire and food awareness were heightened under the sleep-deprived condition. In addition, the desire for larger quantities of high-calorie, weight-gain promoting foods also intensified.
Other studies have evaluated sleep restriction (limiting subjects to about 4 hours of sleep) and relationship to food. A small study (25 normal-weight men and women) published in the International Journal of Obesity found that when participants slept for only four hours, exposure to unhealthy foods prompted increased activity in the parts of their brains involved in reward and cravings. These changes didn’t happen when they got plenty of sleep.
Study authors said that the findings suggest a greater propensity to succumb to unhealthy foods when sleep is restricted. They also pointed to earlier research showing that a lack of sleep leads to more cravings for foods high in fats and sugars and an increase in overall food consumption, specifically more snacking.
Hunger Hormone Changes
Lack of sleep can also mess with your hormones, particularly ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone that is produced by the stomach when it is empty. It’s also produced in greater amounts when you’re low on sleep.
Ghrelin travels through the bloodstream to the brain, where it stimulates neurons in the hypothalamus to signal hunger. For this reason, ghrelin is often called the “hunger hormone.”
A small study published in 2014 found that when people were given injections of ghrelin, they were more likely to crave high-calorie sweets and junk food. The researchers concluded that chronically high levels of ghrelin—such as might happen from skipping meals or not getting enough sleep—could play a role in obesity.
Another study published in Obesity Reviews found that catching a few zzz’s might reduce ghrelin levels. Researchers from Louisiana State University found that stress management techniques like sleeping and exercising helped to reduce both ghrelin levels and the cravings that come with them.
Unfortunately, researchers have not yet found a ghrelin-blocking drug that is effective for changing eating behavior. So sleep may be the best approach to managing the hunger hormone.
More Fatigue, Less Healthy Activity
In addition to complex hormone shifts and neural changes, there are very basic ways that poor sleep or lack of sleep can impact your efforts to lose weight. Simply put, when you’re tired, you may be less likely to put effort into exercise and healthy meal planning.
If you’re trying to lose weight, a typical recommendation is that you get 300 minutes or more of moderate physical activity each week. That’s about 45 minutes per day—every day. Experts also suggest avoiding heavily processed convenience foods, which are linked to weight gain.
But preparing nutritious meals and increasing physical activity takes mental and physical energy. If you’re tired, you may not have the willpower to follow through. Getting enough rest each night can help to prepare your body and mind for these important efforts.
How to Sleep Better
Some weight loss and fitness experts have begun to include sleep tips when they advise their clients about healthy lifestyle changes. “When I tell women that they are going to eat less when they sleep more, their ears perk up!” says Chris Freytag. Freytag is a nationally recognized health and wellness expert with more than 20 years of experience in the industry.
She explains that we can recharge our “human battery” in one of three ways: by exercising, by eating, or by sleeping. If we don’t get a good night’s sleep, she says, we are likely to refuel by eating too much. So how we do improve the quality of our sleep? Freytag offers these helpful tips to sleep better, refuel and recharge:
Evaluate Your Environment
If you can’t afford to get a full eight hours of sleep at night, don’t despair. Both sleep quality and sleep quantity play a role in your health. “Just because you are lying down for eight hours doesn’t mean that you are sleeping for eight hours,” says Freytag. Her advice for better-quality sleep includes making a few simple changes to your environment.
- Don’t charge electronic accessories next to your bed, as they create a subliminal distraction.
- Invest in a high-quality mattress to achieve the best sleeping posture.
- Minimize distractions, such as light or noise from a television.
Skip the Late-Night Snack
If you find yourself craving a late-night snack, Freytag suggests trying to skip it and refuel by sleeping instead. But if you really need a small snack before bed, she recommends eating a complex carbohydrate like oatmeal or a piece of whole-grain toast. These foods will keep you satisfied for a longer period of time.
Respect Your Own Sleep Habits
Work within your own needs for sleep. This might mean adjusting your daily habits. For example, some people find that exercising late at night is disruptive to a good night’s sleep. But for others, an early morning workout isn’t tolerable. The key, says Freytag, is working within your lifestyle to find what works.
By learning to sleep well, you may gain the energy you need to invest in other aspects of your health. And you may find that your appetite for more nutritious foods and healthy activity increases as well.
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