Obesity and sleep

by CynthiaYockey on July 3, 2011

Dear Attila is musing tonight on why people become overweight and proposes two explanations. I agree with her, but want to add a third — sleep deprivation. Luckily, the Los Angeles Times published a story this week explaining, “Lack of sleep contributing to obesity” (boldfacing mine):

“You’re fighting against the tide to lose weight when you’re sleep-deprived,” said Dr. Amy Aronsky, medical director of The Center for Sleep Disorders in Portland, Ore., and a board certified sleep specialist. “Good sleep is as important as a good diet and exercise when it comes to weight loss.”

Where’s the link between sleep and obesity?

Hormones are the likely culprits. Normal adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, particularly deep sleep and REM (dream) sleep, Aronsky said. When we don’t get the good quality and proper quantity of sleep, hormone levels are altered, plus we wake up feeling unrested.

Some people are genetically programmed to need just five or six hours of sleep per night to be healthy, but that’s a tiny portion of the population, said sleep expert Dr. Michael Decker, associate professor at Georgia State University and spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Children ages 2 to 3 need 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night, while children ages 5 to 10 need 9 1/2 to 11 hours, Decker added.

Studies have shown that when sleep is restricted, the hormone ghrelin increases and the hormone leptin decreases. Ghrelin tells our brain that we’re hungry, while leptin tells it we’ve eaten enough.

Average leptin levels decreased 18 percent when sleep was restricted to four hours per night over two nights, according to a study published in the journal Sleep Medicine by Dr. Eve Van Cauter, Average ghrelin levels increased 28 percent when sleep was restricted.

In other words, when we don’t get enough sleep we feel hungry, even if we’ve eaten enough.

In another Van Cauter study, healthy young volunteers showed signs of prediabetes when they were restricted to four hours of sleep for six nights in a row.

The stress hormone cortisol also surges when we’re sleep-deprived. When that happens, we crave high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods (“comfort foods”) to increase our serotonin levels to calm down, said Dr. Michael Breus, author of “The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan.”

Other studies consistently show that adults sleeping fewer than six hours a night increase their likelihood for becoming overweight or obese — even when exercising and eating right, Decker said. Among adults ages 32 to 49, those averaging five hours of sleep were twice as likely to be obese after nine years compared with those averaging seven hours.

The news for kids is just as alarming. A study of 8,234 children (starting at age 38 weeks) found that the odds of being obese by age 7 increased 50 percent for children averaging fewer than 10 1/2 hours of sleep. Another study found that 58 percent of obese kids averaged fewer than eight hours of sleep, while just 11 percent of non-obese kids averaged fewer than eight hours of sleep.

By coincidence, I’ve been MIA this week due to sleep deprivation. To help out a friend, from Sunday night to Tuesday afternoon, I battled with iTunes and an iPad, and just as I was recovering from that, my beloved big grey cat, Beauregard, was sick Friday night and I was up with him into the wee hours. The veterinarian treated his dehydration with IV fluids Saturday morning, and took a blood sample, but we won’t have the results until Tuesday. Beauregard did not perk up from the steroid shot and is still lethargic and not eating or drinking, so my heart is aching at the possibility of losing him.

My own quest to lose weight is going well. It also is becoming more comfortable — I credit a more active application of the principles of ayurveda and some ayurvedic supplements that I began to use in May. And that brings up another element to consider regarding weight control: ayurveda discerns 10 mind-body types, with the three dominated by kapha dosha having the characteristic of putting on weight easily and needing to exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight.


If you have a comment that hasn’t been approved, it’s because I haven’t looked at the comments since last Sunday. The subject of gay equality can attract toxic comments and I need to be well-rested to respond to them courteously.

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Siraardvark July 3, 2011 at 5:13 am

I know all about sleep deprivation and weight gain from 7 years on night shift. 

Liz July 3, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Yup. I also think that, aside from hormones, there are other reasons for this.

Someone who is extemely sleep deprived (which would be a large portion of the population: my nurse girlfriend tells me that the normal sleep pattern is 4-5 hours, one hour awake, then 4-5 hours more, and I believe her) probably has unhealthy patterns in the rest of their life.

Sleep deprivation and unhappiness/depression seem to go together. People with atypical depression (which is actually the most common type) tend to eat more, as the human body sends out happy hormones when we eat, regardless of what we’re eating or why.

If someone is working too hard and does not have the time to sleep, then that schedule alone will ensure that they eat more and less healthily. Even if it’s down to poor time management, they’re not in a position to be healthy.

Cynthia Yockey July 6, 2011 at 3:03 am

You are quite right.

Attmay July 4, 2011 at 4:23 am

I am about 10 pounds from my goal weight, which has taken over two years to get to. I’m glad to see you’re doing well.

Cynthia Yockey July 6, 2011 at 3:00 am

Congratulations! Well done! And thank you!

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