Losing sleep can mean gaining weight

Anna Zhou
8 March 2016

Above: Image © KatarzynaBialasiewicz, iStockphoto.com

How much sleep have you been getting lately?The recommended amount of sleep for teenagers is 8 to 10 hours a night. But many teens don’t get enough sleep because they’re staying out with friends, keeping up with social media, or studying and completing assignments late into the night.

These might all seem like good reasons to sleep a little less. But research shows that missing sleep has many negative effects, including decreased concentration and memory, depression, irritability, and even weight gain.

Did you know? Homeostasis——your body’s internal balance——is maintained by the hypothalamus. This part of your brain regulates important processes in your body, like hunger and thirst, hormone release, temperature, and heart rate.

Why might you pack on a couple of extra pounds when you don’t get enough sleep? It has to do with two hormones, leptin and ghrelin. These hormones regulate your metabolism, appetite, and energy expenditure. They each have a different effect on the hypothalamus, a part of your brain that manages food intake. Leptin is released by fat cells, and signals to your body that it is full and has energy to burn. Ghrelin is released by the stomach, and signals to your body that it is hungry and needs more calories.

When you sleep, your body does not need to take in as much energy as when you are awake. So your leptin levels increase and your ghrelin levels decrease. This means that lack of sleep can lead to too little leptin and too much ghrelin in your body. Too little leptin causes you to feel hungry, even when you don’t really need any more energy. It also means that any calories you consume are stored by the body as fat. Too much ghrelin makes things worse by making you feel like you need even more food.

Researchers have also found that lack of sleep makes you crave sweet, salty and carbohydrate-packed foods, such as——you guessed it!——junk food. So, not only do you eat more than you need and pack on the extra calories as fat when you are tired, you also reach for the least healthy foods out there.

Did you know? Research shows that sleep-deprived drivers are just as impaired as drunk drivers, and cause many deadly accidents. For everyone’s safety, it is extremely important to avoid driving when you’re tired!

The best way to avoid this perfect storm of bad nutrition and weight gain is simply to get more sleep! Here are a few tried-and-true tips for how to do just that:

  • Make sure your room is dark, cool, and quiet. These are all important for quality sleep. Sleep masks and dark curtains to block light also help.
  • Get into a routine for sleeping and waking up. Once your body has adjusted to this routine, you will fall asleep more easily at night and feel more awake in the morning.
  • Try calming activities to prime your body for sleep at bedtime, such as reading, listening to soothing music, taking a warm shower or bath, or meditating.
  • Do you worry a lot while trying to fall asleep? Make a to-do list to come back to the next morning when you are well rested and clear headed.
  • Try not to use any electronic devices at least an hour before bed. Definitely do not make a habit of checking Facebook and Instagram while in bed! The light from these devices makes it harder for you to sleep.

Making a couple of these small lifestyle changes can help you maintain a healthy weight and good nutrition. Trust me, you’ll feel great!

Learn More!

Websites with general information on the science of sleep:

Teens and sleep (2015)
National Sleep Foundation

Brain scans show specific neuronal response to junk food when sleep-restricted (2012)
American Academy of Sleep Medicine

Judgement and Safety (2008)
Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School

Sleep and memory (2008)
Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School

Sleep and Mood (2008)
Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School

Is a lack of sleep making me fat? (2006)
J. Layton, HowStuffWorks.com

Adolescent sleep needs and patterns (2000)
National Sleep Foundation

Website with information on the hypothalamus:

An overview of the hypothalamus (2015)
R. M. Sargis, Endocrineweb

Examples of scientific studies related to sleep:

Central leptin and ghrelin signalling: comparing and contrasting their mechanisms of action in the brain (2011)
X. Shan & G. S. H. Yeo, Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders 12 Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance (2007)
P. Alhola & P. Polo-Kantola, Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 3

Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index (2004)
S. Taheri, L. Lin, D. Austin, T. Young & E. Mignot, PLoS Medicine 1

Anna Zhou

I completed my BSc at McMaster University in Biochemistry and am now pursuing my MSc in Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto. I am located at the SickKids research building in downtown Toronto and am researching the structure of the ATP synthase using electron microscopy. In my spare time, I love to dance, read and explore the city.


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