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You Snooze, You Lose... (weight, that is)

You can be doing everything right with your diet. You are exercising regularly, but he weight won’t come off. For anyone trying to lose weight or just get healthier, chronic sleep deprivation will completely sabotage your efforts.

You probably already know that, though, and you’re probably also tired of people just telling you to “sleep more”, but here’s a quick reminder of why sleep is so important for weight loss, and some practical tips to help you actually make it happen.

Sleep: Why Does It Matter?

Sleep matters for weight loss for two big reasons. First, there’s the behavioral aspect: how much sleep you get influences what you’re likely to put in your mouth. Second, there’s the metabolic aspect: sleep deprivation profoundly changes what happens to that food once it’s already down the hatch.

Study after study has shown that if they’re allowed to choose their own diet, sleep-deprived subjects will eat more food, especially more junk, and you too will likely go for the “comfort food” in the face of sleep deprivation. Specifically, sleep deprivation is a huge risk factor for sugar cravings and overeating high-carb junk food (think cookies, pretzels, chips, pasta bowls and drive-thrus).

This is pretty easy to understand – if you don’t have enough energy from one source, your body will go looking for it somewhere else. Unfortunately, the easiest “quick energy” available to most of us is sugary junk food, so sleep deprivation is sending us straight for the sugar aisles.

Sleep and Metabolism

Let’s say you have iron willpower, though. You’re one of the few who can stride past the vending machine after a week of late nights and not give the Snickers a backwards glance, because you’re exceptionally good at estimating your food intake and because you’re completely on top of everything you eat. Despite the sleep debt, your body still knows you haven’t slept, and it’s still not happy about it.

Sleep loss reduces insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity is the metabolic capacity to handle eating carbs and to use them for energy, instead of storing them as fat. A reduction in insulin sensitivity means that you’re more likely to store food as fat (and then still be hungry afterwards). This changes the composition of the gut flora, causing inflammation, digestive issues and thus an inability to lose weight.

"Sleep deficient humans exhibit a pro-inflammatory component; therefore, sleep loss is considered as a risk factor for developing cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurodegenerative diseases (i.e., diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis).” Nothing that promotes diabetes is helping you lose weight.

Sleeping for Weight Loss

Now comes the really hard part: actually getting the sleep that you need. With a few well-rested exceptions, most people in the modern world simply don’t get enough hours in the sack. So here’s a guide to figuring out what’s really holding you back from the sleep you need, and how to fix that.

  1. Make sleep a priority. Right now, sleep may not be a priority in your life. You might say it’s a priority, but priorities are about what you do, not what you say. If you’re staying up to watch TV, then TV is a higher priority than sleep. Clearly, the solution is to make sleep a higher priority than whatever is keeping you up, but you have to do this by changing your behavior, not just talking about it. Try using specific, trackable tactics like

  2. Create a bedtime routine. If you start your pre-sleep routine 9pm, sooner or later it’ll become automatic and you’ll end up doing it every day.

  3. Ban electronics from the bedroom. If they’re not there, they can’t distract you.

  4. Schedule a “done time” for your work. Don’t tell yourself you have all evening to do whatever it is; give yourself a deadline so you can get it done and then relax and get ready for bed.

  5. If you have a medical problem that prevents you from sleeping your best bet is to see a doctor. Issues like insomnia can keep you lying awake even if you’re technically in your bed for 8 hours every night. Even non-sleep-related problems, like GERD, can sometimes keep you up if they make you uncomfortable enough. And sleep disorders (sleep apnea is probably the most common example) can make your sleep un-refreshing, even if you’re technically unconscious for all of those 8 hours.

  6. Manage personal and work expectations. People who say they are ’too busy to sleep’ means it’s time to think about dialing back the amount of stuff you have going on in your life. If you’re actually so busy that you can’t get enough sleep, you might be running on permanent “crisis mode,” which is a health collapse waiting to happen. It’s better to pull back now, while you still have some juice left in the tank, than to run the gas tank dry and be forced to stop wherever you end up.

  7. Practice “Thought Stopping”. Thought stopping is a cognitive intervention technique prescribed by psychotherapists with the goal of interrupting, removing, and replacing problematic recurring thoughts. (I'll do a separate post on this later)

  8. Don’t just stay in bed. If you can’t fall back asleep in 10 minutes, get out of bed and out of the room. Read, write down whatever it is you were thinking about that kept you awake, check your emails, have a snack, whatever, just don’t stay in bed. When you start to feel drowsy, return to your bed.

Successful, long-term weight loss means finding a sleep schedule that makes you feel energized and ready to take on the day. Sleep deprivation can seriously throw off your behavior patterns and your body’s response to food, sabotaging your weight-loss efforts in several different ways. The solution to sleep deprivation depends on the cause, but you owe it to yourself to figure out what it is for you and how to address it.

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