How poor sleep promotes weight gain

David Heber, M.D., PhD, FACP, FASN; Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute 

While the world is beginning to understand the importance of sleep for our oveall wellbeing, it is often forgotten when we talk about nutrition, exercise, and behavior strategies for achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight and best personal shape. As a physician and Founding Director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, I have studied the importance getting enough good quality sleep for successful weight management and overall health. While there are many ways to promote getting to sleep, the best quality sleep occurs when the body adjusts naturally to consistent daily timing of meals, exercise, and relaxation. It is also important to practice good sleep hygiene which includes, not eating three hours before bed; shutting down work two hours before bed; and saying goodnight to your screens one hour before bed including smartphones, computers, and other digital devices which emit light into the eyes to throw off your biological clock. 

Poor sleep is associated with high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, weight gain, mood swings, paranoia, depression and a higher risk of diabetes, stroke, and dementia. Research also shows that a third of Americans experience periods of insomnia, and one in ten experience three sleepless nights a week for months on end. Sleeplessness not only impacts our health, it is also responsible for an estimated $63 billion in lost productivity every year in the U.S. 

Why does sleep matter? When our body clock is thrown off balance, we end up with increased hunger and appetite. Recent epidemiological and laboratory evidence confirm previous findings of an association between sleep loss and increased risk of obesity. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies release more ghrelin, a hormone made by the stomach cells that increases appetite. As an example, overnight airplane flights from West to East are particularly disruptive and increased craving and eating in the next day often follows to relieve the fatigue secondary to poor sleep on the airplane. Stress from too little sleep can build up and cause more cortisol, a stress hormone, to enter the blood stream from the adrenal glands leading to fatigue and poor thinking ability. Studies have also shown that higher cortisol levels lead to an increase in abdominal fat deposits.

Sound Advice for Sound Sleep 

Now that we understand that good sleep is critical to our mind and body, what are some natural ways to help our body become “sleep ready?” Just like small children thrive on bedtime rituals, so do adults. If you are like the millions of people that go to bed with their cell phone or fall asleep in front of the TV, you may be aware that those practices are poor sleep hygiene. 

Eat Smart, Snack Smart: While there is a lot of buzz about intermittent dieting, the facts are based on some long-term sound advice. Stop eating and snacking at least three hours before bedtime. This allows for proper digestion and helps you avoid heartburn that can keep you awake at night. 

Stop Working: Not only should you not be working as you prepare for sleep, follow the digital detox rule of no computers or digital readers at least one hour before bedtime– that means TV too! 

Make Exercise the Norm: Exercise has numerous critical health benefits – but it also helps your body relax into sleep. The best exercise is during the morning and a great jumpstart to the day. 

Take a Sleep Check: A lot of smart watches can now help to monitor sleep functions, heart rates and even let you know when you wake up in middle night– learn how well you are sleeping versus guessing. 

De-Stress: Deep breathing, relaxing stretches, mindful meditation – take time to let your mind and body unwind before you try to catch your zzz’s. 

Keep on Schedule: While life can often wreak havoc with sleep times, make every effort to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. This creates a sleep rhythm that your body will thank you for. 

Eat Breakfast: So much has been said about the benefits of breakfast. When you sleep, you’re actually fasting, so when you wake up you need to restore proteins to start your day. 

Collectively, nutrition, exercise and sleep promote better health, and while they won’t take away the stressful situations, they can help you better manage stress levels and achieve better overall wellbeing.