Sleep and body weight: what’s the connection?
Eating and sleeping are usually thought of as mutually exclusive activities—you generally either do one or the other. But I’ve met plenty of people who get up from a sound sleep in the middle of the night and engage in sleep eating. And it’s not just a glass of milk or a couple of crackers. Some get up and make themselves a big sandwich, heat up leftovers, or throw a frozen pizza in the oven. Another client told me she often woke up in the morning to find dirty dishes in her kitchen sink – which wouldn’t be particularly alarming, except that she lived by herself and had no recollection of having eaten. She finally had to install a lock on the kitchen door to prevent herself from ‘sleep-eating.’
There are all sorts of ways in which sleep and body weight are interconnected. People who are sleep-deprived tend to snack more, and they seek out ‘highly palatable’ foods (translation: goodies high in fat and sugar). The more hours you are awake, the more time you have to spend eating. There’s also the possibility that if you sleep less, you have less energy to exercise as intensely—or even to exercise at all.
Certainly, if you get up during the night and eat—whether you’re awake or asleep while you’re doing it—you’ll be putting away some extra calories. When I ask people why they get up in the night and eat, they don’t usually say that they wake up and find themselves hungry. Instead, they’ll say that when they eat something, it helps them get back to sleep. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one – because it says that hunger isn’t the driver. Rather, they’ve developed a behavior chain that leads from eating to sleeping (wake up—can’t sleep—eat something—go back to sleep). Every time they wake up and eat, they reinforce the notion that food helps them get back to sleep.
Inadequate sleep can also lead to shifts in levels of some of the body’s hunger hormones. Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells, and one of its jobs is to send a signal to your brain to tell you that you’re full. Problem is, when you don’t get enough sleep, your leptin levels plummet and so you don’t feel satisfied. If that weren’t enough, lack of sleep also leads to a boost in an appetite-stimulating hormone called ghrelin—driving sleep-deprived folks into the kitchen looking for a midnight snack.
So, getting adequate and uninterrupted sleep is an important tool in ‘girth control.’ If you’re wondering how to sleep and a good night’s rest doesn’t come easily, here are a few things to consider:
– Regular exercise is key. Exercise helps you reach the deep sleep stages more quickly, so your sleep is more restful.
– Your environment is important, too. Sleep can be disturbed if the room is too hot or cold, too humid, of if there’s too much light.
– Keep tabs on your caffeine and alcohol intake, since both can disrupt your sleep.
– Watch those heavy dinners, late night snacks and beverages, too. Nothing ruins a good night’s sleep quite like indigestion and a full bladder.
By Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training
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