Want to Lose Weight? Get some Zzz's.

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD  

When it comes to weight loss, you may be overlooking one of the most important factors – sleep! Eating healthy food and exercising can certainly help you lose weight, but these actions do not make up the whole picture. Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight are influenced by several factors, including sleep. Just the simple act of laying your head on a pillow and getting quality rest can have a huge impact on weight loss. 

There are hundreds of different opinions about the most important aspect of weight loss. Is it eating more vegetables? What about doing more cardio? Or decreasing sugar intake? Focusing on these actions can help you make healthier choices and possibly lose weight. But those who are most successful in losing and maintaining weight also focus on managing stress and getting their shut-eye!  

So, as it turns out, eating nutritionally complete meals, exercising, keeping stress in check, and getting quality sleep together make up the most important aspects of weight loss. There is no “magic bullet.” Focusing on the variety of aspects that influence health will help you make the best choices for your overall wellness and weight goals. Read on to learn about the effects of rest on weight, and how to improve your sleep! 

Sleep and Weight Regulation 

How much and what kind of sleep you get can influence weight in a number of ways. For one, getting enough rest increases focus and energy, allowing you to have more efficient workouts, have more energy to prepare healthy foods or make healthier choices, and better manage stress. If you are someone who tends to overeat during times of stress, getting enough sleep may help you deal with stress and in turn, decrease overeating.  

Sleep also affects weight via the regulation of hormones. The body’s hormonal response to feeling tired is to encourage eating to regain energy in the form of calories. Two hormones play a role in the response to inadequate sleep: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin decreases appetite and signals your body to stop eating, whereas ghrelin increases appetite and tells you to eat more.  

When you are sleep deprived, your body releases less leptin and more ghrelin, resulting in increased appetite. For most people, this translates to reaching for sugary or high carbohydrate foods that give an immediate surge of energy. These foods are often high in calories and provide no beneficial nutrients, such as fiber or vitamins and minerals. These hormonal changes can occur even after just one night of insufficient sleep. Imagine the cumulative effect of several nights, weeks, or months of suboptimal sleep!  

The hormonal changes do not stop with leptin and ghrelin. Lack of sleep can also increase the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone. High levels of cortisol can disturb body composition by influencing your body to store more fat and use more muscle for energy. In other words, not getting enough shut eye translates to gaining fat and losing muscle.  

A final effect of insufficient sleep on weight is the increased amount of time for eating. Those who get less sleep may simply have more time to eat and reach for nighttime snacks or early morning pick-me-ups compared to those who get an optimal amount of rest. In one study, researchers had women decrease their sleep from seven to four hours over the course of four nights. Their findings showed that the women ate up to 400 extra calories on the nights with less sleep compared to the night when they slept a full seven hours.  

How to Improve your Sleep Hygiene 

Sleep deprivation encompasses both insufficient time and poor quality. Most experts agree that an ideal amount of sleep ranges from seven to nine hours a night. Even when you do get this amount of sleep, the quality still matters! Just resting your eyes and lying down for seven hours does not always equate to a good night’s sleep.    

Sleep can be disrupted by caffeine, sugar, alcohol, sleep apnea, pain, stress, and several other factors. To ensure that you receive the highest quality sleep, be mindful of your caffeine, sugar, and alcohol intake, especially later in the day. If you suffer from sleep apnea or chronic pain, and/or deal with chronic stress, make efforts to get these conditions under control by visiting your doctor and/or practicing stress reduction techniques, such as yoga and meditation.  

Carving out time for at least seven hours of sleep and reducing the number of possible sleep disturbances go hand in hand in ensuring you achieve good sleep. The following tips are simple ways that you can improve your sleep hygiene: 

  • Leave your electronics out of the bedroom. Power down your computers, TVs, tablets, and phones before you step foot into your room, or better yet, an hour before you plan to go to sleep. If you must bring your phone with you, limit the amount of time you use it to five minutes before transferring it to your charger or out of the room.  

  • Go to bed around the same time every night. Most people are creatures of habit, and benefit from the certainty of routines. So why limit your routines to daytime activities? Make a point to get into your bed around a similar time every evening, and if you can, try to wake up around the same time in the mornings.  

  • Increase your movement. The benefits of exercise last for several hours after the activity, and movement can have a positive effect on sleep. People who stick with an exercise routine typically fall asleep more quickly and have higher quality rest.  

  • Set a comfortable temperature. If you feel too cold or hot when you are trying to fall asleep, chances are it will take longer and you may wake up throughout the night out of discomfort. Set your thermostat to an appropriate temperature and increase or shed layers to make yourself comfortable. 

  • Limit caffeine consumption to seven or more hours before bedtime. Depending on the person, drinking caffeine too close to bedtime can cause restlessness and possible insomnia.  

  • Limit alcohol intake. Drinking too much alcohol can disrupt the sleep cycle, and lead to restlessness throughout the night.  

  • Limit added sugars or large meals before bed. Foods with added sugars tend to cause a spike in blood sugars, followed by a quick drop. Eating these foods before bed can disrupt sleep as blood sugar falls in the middle of the night. Large meals too close to bedtime may cause discomfort as your body tries to digest food while you are laying down.  

Foods that Promote Sleep  

In addition to making the above changes to improve your sleep, you can also incorporate certain foods to promote sleep. Foods that are rich in melatonin, magnesium, or tryptophan can help you get your zzz’s! Use the following list as a guide for sleep-promoting foods:  

  • Almonds and walnuts. Both of these nuts contain magnesium, a nutrient that can help ease anxiety, and melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone.  

  • Bananas. Eating a banana, especially with a dab of almond butter, may help promote a more restful sleep. Bananas are another source of melatonin.  

  • Chamomile tea. This tea is well known for its possible sleep-promoting benefits. Chamomile contains certain compounds that may bind to receptors in the brain and promote sleepiness.  

  • Turkey or cheese. Both of these foods are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that triggers the release of melatonin. Enjoy a slice or two with a dab of mustard for an evening snack.  

  • Tart cherries or tart cherry juice. Another source of melatonin, tart cherries and their juice may promote sleep and reduce insomnia. A handful of cherries, or a small two to four ounce serving of juice, may help you on your way to peaceful sleep.  

  • Avocado. For a source of magnesium that may reduce anxiety and help with better sleep, try sliced avocado. You can top it with a sprinkle of sea salt, or pair with fresh berries for a healthy snack. 

Note from Healthy for Life Meals: Several factors influence weight loss including sleep, exercise, and eating nutritionally complete meals. Our mission is to help you achieve your heath and weight loss goals by taking the work, and the guesswork, out of healthy eating, leaving you the time and ability to focus on other important things like getting enough movement and getting enough sleep! Get started today. 

Stef Keegan