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Is Your Lack of Sleep Making You Fat?

Posted Sep 17 2008 12:52am

Could the amount of sleep you get actually influence your weight?

If recent studies -- and the experiences of my own patients -- mean anything, the answer is a resounding yes.

Let me tell you about Jim. His problems were all too real -- but his story isn't unique.

Jim came to my office last week desperate for help. He'd gained 140 pounds in just the last three years, ballooning up from a slim 186 lbs to a whopping 320 lbs.  But he wasn't eating more than most people. Instead, some very specific lifestyle changes were to blame for his weight gain.

What had happened during those three years to make Jim pack on so many pounds?

Well, a lot.

He had gotten divorced, remarried, had two children, lost his mother, and almost lost his brother! Despite all that, Jim used to be in shape: He worked out, played football, and ate well.

Then his schedule changed, and he began working the night shift at his security job. So he worked all night and took care of his daughter during the day while his wife was at work. That left Jim no time for exercise, and only about 4 hours for sleep.

To make matters worse, he craved sugar and carbohydrates and ate one huge meal of pasta, rice, and bread before going to work each night to give him energy. The result? Quick and dramatic weight gain.

Jim isn't alone. Like so many Americans, he was a victim of a culture that prides itself on productivity -- where sleep is simply a nuisance that gets in the way of work, family, TV, the Internet, email, and exercise.  We make up for this lack of sleep by filling our tanks with sugar, refined carbs, caffeine, and other stimulants that we hope will give us more energy. Believe me, if Starbuck's went out of business tomorrow, America's productivity would drop precipitously.

We're trying to compensate for lost energy from sleep by going overboard with energy from sugar. The results are astounding: Over the last 20 years, US consumption of caffeine and sugar has increased dramatically (185 lbs of it per person each year) -- and so has our collective weight!

It's no secret that sugar contributes to weight gain. But why are we craving so much sugar in the first place?

Think back to Jim's story. The main thing in his life that changed before his weight gain was his sleep schedule. That's no coincidence. In fact, new research suggests that lack of sleep is linked to obesity.

Why?  It's all about the hormones.

Your body has a finely tuned appetite control system that is governed by certain hormones. These hormones are affected by sleep. One group of researchers has found that depriving healthy men of sleep leads to increases in grehlin, the hormone that makes you feel hungry, and decreases in leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full.

How does that affect your body? You stay hungry and start craving high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods. After many nights of sleep deprivation while working in the emergency room, I can tell you that this is true! We also need sleep to keep our levels of Cortisol -- the stress hormone that makes us fat -- low. (See Chapter 10 of Ultrametabolism for more.)

Not sleeping enough is a big problem in this country: Over the last 40 years Americans on average, sleep 2 hours less. But it's not just about quantity. Our quality of sleep is also suffering.

Snoring can certainly annoy your bed partner. But it's also often a sign of a serious and potentially deadly condition called sleep apnea, which causes you to stop breathing dozens of times a night or more. This leads not only to fatigue, daytime sleepiness, risk of car accidents, and trouble concentrating, thinking, and remembering things. Even worse, sleep apnea can raise your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.

It's more common that you might think: One in 5 adults has a mild form of sleep apnea, one in 15 has a moderate to severe form -- and up to 80 percent of cases who could benefit from treatment go undiagnosed!

Could you have sleep apnea? It's most common in men between age 40 and 70 and in people who have a family history of the condition or who are overweight, specifically in the belly and the neck. Smoking, drinking alcohol before bed, being in menopause, and having nasal congestion also raise your risk of sleep apnea.

The good news: Sleep apnea can be treated.

First, get tested at a qualified sleep lab. You'll likely be prescribed a device called CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) that keeps your airway from collapsing at night and stopping you from breathing.  Other treatments include dental devices that push your lower jaw forward to keep the airway open.

These treatments can save your life -- and help you lose weight. It's not uncommon for my patients to lose up to 50 pounds by just having their sleep apnea treated. They eat less, have more energy, and can exercise more -- and it all happens effortlessly, by just having good quality sleep.

That's the solution for people with sleep apnea.

But what if you just can't get ENOUGH sleep?

Try these tips to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, which can have dramatic effects on your weight and health:

1.      Avoid substances that affect sleep, like caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.

2.      Avoid any stimulating activities for 2 hours before bed such as watching TV, using the Internet, and answering emails.

3.      Go to bed (preferably before 10 or 11 pm) and wake up at the same time every day.

4.      Exercise daily for 30 minutes (but not 3 hours before bed, which can affect sleep)

5.      Use your bed only for sleep and sex.

6.      Keep your bedroom very dark or use eyeshades.

7.      Block out sound if you have a noisy environment by using earplugs (the soft silicone ones work the best).

8.      Make the room a comfortable temperature for sleep - not too hot or cold.

9.      Take a hot bath at night for 20 minutes. Add 2 cups of Epsom salt and 10 drops of lavender essential oil to the bathwater.

10.     Take 200 to 400 mg of magnesium citrate or glycinate before bed, which relaxes the nervous system and muscles.

11.     Other supplements and herbs can be helpful in getting some shuteye, such as calcium, theanine (an amino acid from green tea), GABA, 5-HTP, melatonin, valerian, passionflower, and magnolia.

12.     If you are still having trouble sleeping, get checked out for other problems that can interfere with sleep, including food sensitivities, thyroid problems, menopause, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, heavy metal toxicity, and, of course, stress and depression.

I hope I've helped make the link between sleep and your weight more clear. This relationship really illustrates that food and exercise aren't the only factors behind weight gain or loss.

Now that you understand how sleep can make you heavy, start taking steps to hit the sack earlier -- and better -- to stay slim.

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