Over the past year, I’ve continually identified sleep as the limiting factor for many people’s weight loss attempts. Beyond tracking food intake and exercise, I’ve had people I work with track sleep. It doesn’t have to be detailed; I just want to know if they’re over seven hours or under. It’s striking how much sleep deprivation can get in the way of success.
Recently, I experienced this sleep deprivation cycle first hand. My wife found a stray dog in the parking lot of the grocery store, and we took him in. Let’s hope it isn’t a 15-year foster. Given the fact that we already have three dogs, my sleep has suffered. I have been waking up more often, and my sleep has been dipping under seven hours.
As a side effect, I’ve noticed I’m far hungrier. My usual breakfast doesn’t hold me over. One night, I had three bowls of chili, and was still looking for more. Usually one bowl would have kept me happy. I also started to include bench press in my workouts for the first time in years, so perhaps that has something to do with increased hunger. Stray dogs and bench press are bad for your health. You heard it here first.
The Science of Being Tired
When we don’t sleep enough, good food choices become difficult from both a psychological and physiological standpoint. Our mind is tired, and coming home from a long day at work makes cooking dinner and exercising difficult. Being trapped in an office, fueled by caffeine, and staring at pastries is tough enough. Doing it when you’re tired also causes our bodies to be hungrier. So we get hungrier and snacking becomes more desirable.
Shift workers are most often the subjects of research into the effects of sleep deprivation, because of the marked increase in obesity and metabolic complications seen in this group. There are many hypothesized reasons shift workers see these issues: lack of access to quality food at night, increased hunger during day time, and a broken circadian rhythm are a few.
Researchers attempt to recreate these conditions to isolate causes. In one study with an impressive study design, young adult males were basically shacked up for 11 days and forced to be sleep deprived. One group slept four hours a night, the other group got six. Meals were given, and snack opportunities were had, but the participants were not allowed to eat whenever they liked. Core temperature was continuously monitored rectally to track circadian rhythms. I hope these guys were well compensated! The researchers tried to gain insight on hunger levels related to circadian cycles to understand more about shift workers.
The group allowed four hours per night reported higher hunger levels, less satiety (feeling full), more consumption, and less satisfaction from meals than the six hour a night people. Both groups certainly had negative changes, but in this study, it appeared dose-dependent. The less sleep, the worse it was in terms of eating.
Two of the biggest factors for weight loss are portion control and having set meal times. This becomes increasingly difficult when we need to eat more to be full and we are less satisfied with meals. This leads to more snacking, and since we are tired, the decision to snack becomes easier.
The less sleep you get, the poorer your food choices are likely to become.
An excellent review of the existing literature highlights many of the hormonal changes that result from sleep deprivation relating to hunger and poor health outcomes. I love this line in particular:
“Chronic circadian misalignments not only influence sleep but also influence several other systems including the immune system, appetitive hormones, and energy balance.”
We are tired, sick, and cranky people! Go to bed.
The review highlighted several interesting developments in hormone research. Our gut is connected to our brains more than we know. The hypothalamus secretes orexin, which is involved in the sleep and wake cycle as well as energy balance. It helps activate parts of the nervous system that give the brain feedback on energy balance by monitoring things such as blood sugar and leptin levels. A lack of orexin leads to obesity in animal models, due to decreased activity. Even though appetite goes down in these studies, the lack of activity leads to weight gain. This orexin system is one way the brain keeps tabs on energy balance, and it does so by also including the hormones ghrelin and leptin. As we become sleep deprived, ghrelin increases and leptin decreases. This isn’t desirable, because ghrelin increases hunger, and leptin helps decrease it.
Essentially, when we lack sleep, our communication from brain to gut is disturbed, and this cascades into other hormones misfiring. Long term sleep deprivation makes these problems even worse. I give this information not to make you think about your ghrelin levels at night or talk about your orexin feedback loop at the water cooler. Rather, understand that there are physiological changes in your body when you don’t get enough sleep.
Tips to Hit the Pillow Harder
What can we do about this? We live in a time where it’s almost a badge of honor to work more and sleep less. Extra-large coffee and energy shots. When I moved from New York to Utah, I was determined to get there as quickly as possible because I hated driving that big truck. I popped caffeine pills, drank Mountain Dew, and slapped myself to keep awake. I have no idea how I made it in a day and a half. In fact, I can’t drive more than four hours anymore without becoming sleepy. I used up my “stupid decisions” quota.
But you’ll be more productive and much happier if you get seven hours of sleep or more. Being tired and having no energy becomes the new normal for us, until we break out of it. With a happier attitude, more productivity, and normalized hunger levels, making changes to your diet will be much more attainable. There are several important changes you can try.
Eat What You Know
One study noted that “…novel foods are found to have lower expected satiation than familiar foods and expected satiety ratings have been shown to increase the more familiar a food becomes.”
The more familiar you are with a food, especially when you know that it will keep you satisfied, the better the outcome. Going with a new food may lead you to eat more because it didn’t give you the sensation of being full. There is a whole area of study where scientists look at expected satiety and how we react to foods we know and do not know. If you expect that the meal will keep you full, it has a better chance to do just that.
I’m not advocating eating the same thing day in and day out. That gets boring. But certainly a breakfast can be a rotation of three options that you know and like. Picking one or two meals and making them a little boring for a while can help with eating less and not being hungry all the time.
Have a Tracking System
Without a system, how do you know what your body is doing? I have people I work with track sleep, over 7 or under, and rate how each meal keeps them full or not. You can begin to see correlations. If you sleep more on the weekends, for example, see how that changes your reaction to the same meal.
Data is helpful in lowering the intimidation factor for change. If you get 5 hours of sleep a night, getting 8 seems daunting. However, if you track hunger and sleep, and get 5.5 hours of sleep by making a few sacrifices (Game of Thrones on DVR, or move to the west coast to catch NFL night games earlier), you can see the improvements on paper. Perhaps those changes are good enough for now. Change enough to get results, and you can always do more at a later time.
Diet and workouts suffering? Start tracking your sleep, and you’ll probably find a correlation.
Magnesium is my first line of defense, especially the brand Natural Calm. It mellows you out enough to help you go to sleep. It isn’t too powerful, and it can help a small amount. Melatonin would be next. Try a small amount to see if it can induce sleep. Perhaps once you get in the routine of sleeping better, you may not need a supplement anymore. I chose these two because they are well-studied and have minimal negative effects. Perhaps a visit with a doctor can help you explore other options.
Change Your Routine
Some things in life are unavoidable. If you have a newborn, sleep can be hit or miss, and there isn’t too much you can do about it. But some things can be controlled. Cutting television short, getting home from work on time (which you can when you have more sleep, because you’ll be more productive), and preparing chores in advance on off days can help with more free time to get to sleep. Look for time “leaks” in your day, and I am quite confident we can add a half hour or more to devote to sleep.
You Can’t Be Fit With Bad Sleep
We can’t “hack” sleeping less and doing more. At some point, it bites us. Starting a nutrition program or exercise routine is a great idea. But it all starts with sleep. It is the catalyst that makes every other change possible. Portion control, meal times, food quality, exercise intensity, and hunger are all altered by how much sleep we get. Losing weight requires a caloric deficit. Not sleeping makes us hungrier. That’s a nasty combination.
It sounds almost too simple to be true. Get more sleep, get better results. Sleep isn’t something we can buy, inject, trade, or binge on periodically. It has to be consistent and in the right amounts. Our lives really do depend on it.
By Marc Halpern