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Sleep Deprivation and Weight Gain - What's the Link?

We all know that getting enough sleep is essential for good health, but sleep usually isn’t something that springs to mind as a key area to address for those looking to manage their weight. However, a growing body of research has highlighted how much of an impact sleep can actually have when it comes to achieving or maintaining a healthy weight, with research continuously revealing associations between the two.

While we know that insufficient sleep is not a direct cause of weight gain, findings suggest a clear link between lack of sleep and increased total energy intake and overall weight gain, when considering other mediating factors.

Research has shown the dramatic effects of compromising our sleep needs on our total calorie intake, but also the types of foods we reach for, portion sizes and increased food cravings. We’ve consistently seen that those who sleep less opt for greater amounts of high GI carbohydrates, have a higher overall fat intake and also had greater sugar cravings that those that had sufficient nights sleep.

The physiological factors to explain this behaviour is due to parts of the brain increasing appetite signalling and cravings for high-calorie dense foods, despite not necessarily being physically hungry.

There’s also now some fascinating research showing the association between sleep deprivation and a change in the gut microbiota, with alterations to microbial populations shown to be associated with insulin sensitivity, obesity and disturbed metabolism.

Also, it is thought that another cause of overeating is to compensate on the energy lost from sleep deprivation to support the body’s function and to therefore boost our energy levels and relieve tiredness. Not to mention the fact that when we are sleep-deprived we find it harder we have self-control, which makes us less likely to stick to a healthy eating or exercise routine, despite having the best intentions.

So you can see how consistently missing out on your time between the sheets affects the choices and actions you make, making achieving your weight management goals much harder.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

The amount of sleep we need varies throughout our lifespan and is greatly impacted by lifestyle and health status.

To determine how much sleep you need, it's important to assess not only how you feel, but also to consider what lifestyle factors are affecting the quality and quantity of your sleep, such as work schedules, stress and your sleeping environment.

It’s not always possible to tick off your recommended time between the sheets every night but you want to make sure your ‘sleep debt’ doesn't start to build up, to avoid exhaustion becoming a normal part of life.

Image sourced from the Australian Sleep Health Foundation.

Having a bit of an aha moment and realising you could really do with working on your sleep? Enter sleep hygiene! I’m sure many of you have heard about it, but for those that haven’t, here are some tips on how you can improve your sleep.

Sleep Hygiene Tips

1. Turn your bedroom into a sleep Inducing environment Create a calming space that encourages you to relax without distractions with gentle lighting or candle and save the bedroom for sleep and intimacy. Avoid where possible using your bedroom as a workspace. Get yourself some comfortable bedding, make sure the room isn't too light, there are no noise distractions (if these are unavoidable, you may want to try earplugs) and set make sure the temperature isn't too hot or too cold. 2. Limit stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, tobacco and sugar before bed

Avoid caffeine after 3 pm and be aware of other evening habits that act as stimulants, affecting your chance of falling into a restful sleep.

3. Establish a calming ‘pre-sleep routine’

Start winding down and getting ready a few hours before you plan to go to bed, brew a cup of your favourite non-caffeinated tea, read a few chapters of a book or take 10 minutes to stretch out the day on your yoga mat.

4. Go to sleep when you are truly tired. Be aware of WOO (window of opportunity). Don’t ignore the first signs of sleepiness, as soon as you feel your head start to drop and your eyes shut take yourself to bed.

5. Create screen time boundaries. Avoid the use of iPads, phones and TV 1 hour before bed and don't look at as soon as you wake up.

Exposure to blue light from screens and devices suppresses the production of melatonin more than any other type of light. Decreased production of melatonin affects our ability to get to sleep, as it disturbs our bodies natural circadian rhythm.

6. Ensure adequate intake of protein, especially with your evening meal.

We need protein for the synthesis of important neurotransmitters that play an important role in helping us to fall asleep.

7. Create a consistent sleep schedule (wake up at the same time every day)

Try to avoid waking up at different times every day decide on a set time to wake up each morning. Allow yourself to catch up on sleep at the weekends, but try where possible not to sleep to the point where your bedtime will be affected the following evening. And if possible disable the snooze button on your alarm!

8. Avoid excessive fluid intake before bed

Try to tail off your fluid intake towards the end of the day in order to avoid having to wake in the night to use the bathroom. If you find yourself waking up thirsty during the night, sleep with a glass of water next to your bed so you don’t have to get up.

9. Try to exercise earlier on in the day. If you exercise at night you will be throwing off your circadian rhythm and cortisol cycle.

Often referred to as the "body clock," the circadian rhythm is a cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, rise, eat—regulating many physiological processes. We want to try and follow our bodies natural peak in cortisol (first thing in the morning) and then start to wind down in the afternoon. If the evening if your only chance to exercise, just make sure you are allowing yourself enough time to wind down and relax before trying to go to sleep.

10. Turn your alarm clock away from you and resist the temptation of checking it throughout the night.

Don’t be a nighttime clockwatcher! Getting stressed over what time it is and trying to work out how much sleep you will get if you were to fall asleep soon will make you far less likely to fall asleep. If you can’t get to sleep, try to repeat your pre-sleep routine, or listen to some soothing music for 10 minutes.

Extra sleep tricks you can try when you are struggling or feeling alert and restless before bed:

• Epsom salt bath • Lavender essential oils diffused in your bedroom or dabbed onto your temples

• Evening stretch, yin yoga class or even lying in bed with your legs up on the wall

• Meditation • Herbal teas such as chamomile or passionflower before bed

The best thing about prioritising your sleep is that getting enough literally makes everything better. Happy snoozing!


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Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Young People (5-17 years) – An Integration of Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Sleep. (2020). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from,bed%20and%20wake%2Dup%20times.

Zimberg IZ, Dâmaso A, Del Re M, Carneiro AM, de Sá Souza H, de Lira FS, Tufik S, de Mello MT. Short sleep duration and obesity: mechanisms and future perspectives. Cell Biochem Funct. 2012 Aug;30(6):524-9. doi: 10.1002/cbf.2832. Epub 2012 Apr 4. PMID: 22473743.

Lee, C., Sears, C., & Maruthur, N. (2019). Gut microbiome and its role in obesity and insulin resistance. Annals Of The New York Academy Of Sciences, 1461(1), 37-52. doi: 10.1111/nyas.14107


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