Sleeplessness leads to weight gain


When a patient approaches me with a new problem, I have a go-to question for them.

Are you getting enough sleep?

Usually, the answer is no. In fact, lack-of-sleep is the number one complaint I encounter. That’s not too surprising, considering some surveys show 75% of Americans don’t get enough sleep.

That deprivation can manifest in all sorts of maladies—from a weakened immune system to an increased risk of cancer.

But today, I want to talk about one risk in particular.

Getting less sleep than you need leads to weight problems. In fact, the number of sleep-deprived Americans, and those who are obese, is almost perfectly matched.

Further, the states that get the least sleep also have the highest rates of obesity. That’s just one of several correlations that all point to the same conclusion: Lack of sleep leads to weight gain.

But the culprit might not be what you expect.

I’ll tell you exactly what I mean in a moment. And I’ll tell you the best way to combat this problem as well.

Why does sleep deprivation Cause Weight Gain?

When you don’t get enough sleep, your hormones wind up out of whack.

That includes hormones that govern your appetite. However, believe it or not, the imbalance leans in an unexpected direction.

According to a recent study out of the Mayo Clinic, when participants slept less, leptin—the hormone that makes you feel satiated—actually increased. At the same time ghrelin—the hormone that makes you feel hunger—decreased.

This isn’t because you are sleeping less, but because of what you’re doing with your extra waking hours.

Study participants who only slept an average of 5.2 hours a night consumed an extra 549 calories with their extra time. By contrast, participants who slept a healthier 6.5 hours a night ate 143 fewer calories.

An extra 549 calories a day can lead to gaining a pound of fat every week. And sleep-deprived participants did indeed see weight gain.

That weight gain signals the body that you’re full—leading to greater levels of leptin, and lower levels of ghrelin. But your body’s attempt to balance itself isn’t nearly enough—sleep deprivation consistently leads to weight gain.

The extra calories can be explained by a few factors. Most intuitively, you are awake more hours, and thus can eat more during the day.

At the same time, lack of sleep leads to a loss of impulse control—so the sleep-deprived wind up making worse choices. That’s compounded by the general fatigue you feel when you don’t get enough sleep, leading to cravings for carbohydrates and sugars—the worst offenders when it comes to weight gain.

Worse, those who are awake extra hours don’t wind up burning more calories than those who sleep more. While being awake often burns more calories, the lethargy of sleep-deprivation offsets those gains.

How To Combat Those Sleepy Extra Calories

Obviously, the best way to avoid sleep-deprived extra calories is to get more sleep.

You can do this by practicing good sleep hygiene. Have a regular bedtime. Avoid phone, computer and TV screens for at least an hour before bed, as those blue lights reset your circadian clock.

And avoid caffeine and other stimulants past late afternoon.

But there are a few other tricks you can practice that will help you feel sleepy earlier and make better choices late in the day.

The best possible thing you can do is to eat your largest meals early, and taper the size of your meals down as the hours progress, so your dinner is closer to a snack than a feast.

This will aid you in getting to sleep earlier. And, if you aren’t able to get to bed at a reasonable time, at least you will feel more satiated, and less likely to partake in bad late-night snacks.

Finally, make some hard rules for yourself, so that you won’t be tempted by the late-night snacking bug.

For instance—no processed foods or sugary substances after 9. If you find yourself craving a snack before bed, you won’t be tempted to dip into the candy, and you won’t have to make that choice each time either. Instead, you’ve already made the choice—and you can find a few healthy nuts to nosh on instead.

But that’s a band-aid that you should only use sparingly, when the facts of your life force you to stay awake longer than you’d like. During all other times, you need to get a minimum of six hours of sleep a night, and should really aim for seven to nine.

If you sleep less, you will eat more—and eat worse as well. No matter how strong your will power, lack of sleep will wear you down.

So make sure you get your rest. It’s healthier in countless ways—you will be a healthier weight, eat healthier foods, and make healthier decisions.

That sure beats adding a pound of fat every week just to lethargically stay awake an extra hour.


Last Updated: June 23, 2021
Originally Published: December 2, 2015