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Is sleep sabotaging your weight loss?

Last Modified: 2/10/2020

Sleep and weight

This post was written by Ryan Singerman, DO, PPG – Weight Management & Bariatric Surgery.

Sleep is important, but it’s not always reflected in how we prioritize it. Work, chores, family time, sporting events, even binge-watching a series all seem to come before sleep. In fact, a 2013 Gallup poll noted that 40% of Americans get less than the recommended 8 hours of sleep each night, with the average person hovering around only 6.8 hours. Even if we discount the glaring side effects of sleep deprivation such as lowered concentration, decreased reaction time, increased irritability and larger than average caffeine consumption, is getting enough sleep really that important? Yes! Sleep is a vital, often neglected, component of your overall health and well-being. A lack of it could be sabotaging any efforts of a healthy lifestyle including losing weight.

Creeping cortisol levels

While we sleep, we experience a life-sustaining, critically important regeneration and recycling of neurologic hormones. These aren’t just idle processes. Failure to reach the appropriate restorative levels of sleep gradually impacts a host of hormones reducing our ability to process, reason, react, heal and emote properly which in turn, gradually increases our stress levels and the release of cortisol.

Cortisol can reduce our immune system, counteract insulin, increase glucose production, break down proteins and play a role in stimulating the release of adrenaline. It’s a great tool to have at our disposal when swimming away from a shark, crawling from the wreckage of a car or fending off a masked assailant, but not when we are chronically stressed and trying to stay awake at work. Chronic sleep deprivation racks up psychological and physical stress. Unfortunately, our bodies can’t discern between different types of stress, so whether physical, emotional or mental, at the end of the day, stress is stress, and cortisol is the result.

This also applies to sleep and weight management. Inadequate, interrupted or improper sleep increases cortisol levels making it harder to lose weight. One of the more insidious effects of being sleep deprived is when we’re tired and running on cortisol, it drives us to eat, whether we need it or not. Our own choices in how much sleep we get are one thing, but there are two major factors take that choice out of our hands.

Frustrating factors

The first factor is working second or third shift. In a landmark study in the realm of weight loss and obesity medicine, the impact of altered sleep schedules was examined. The circadian rhythm is the natural rhythm of the body that coincides with the day-night cycle. This rhythm dictates various hormonal cycles in our bodies and is precisely why we feel so tired when getting jet-lagged. The study found that forcing one’s body to adapt to an alternate schedule, or even worse, swing shifting, was very closely associated with weight gain and excess body weight. It doesn’t mean that individuals working on an alternative schedule are doomed to fail, but it does make it that much harder for them to succeed.

The second factor is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is inadequate breathing while sleeping. This is frequently characterized as loud snoring or long pauses in breathing while asleep. It’s also tied to excess body weight which causes the airway to collapse, cutting off the flow of air and decreasing the oxygen saturation. This starves the brain and tremendously impacts the quality of sleep, setting off a chain reaction of cortisol and its harmful effects. Unfortunately, sleep apnea increases weight gain which in turn increases cortisol levels making sleep apnea worse, triggering a truly vicious cycle. If you’d like to know if you’re at risk for sleep apnea, take this test and be sure to report the findings to your doctor.

Remember, having poor sleep may not always be a choice, but it’s certainly something that can be worked on. With that said, poor sleep does make weight loss more difficult and should be a considering factor when managing your weight.

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