The link between sleep deficiency, metabolism, and weight gain

Good nutrition, adequate exercise, and sufficient sleep are all essential for health and happiness.  And yet many of us find it difficult to get enough sleep. Experts recommend that adults obtain at least seven hours of nightly sleep on a regular basis.[1],[2] In a U.S. survey conducted during 2007–2010, only 60% of respondents achieved this goal, while 37% reported sleeping six hours or less.[3]

Many are well aware how insufficient sleep can lead to fatigue and poor concentration. (If not, ask any new parent or chronic insomnia sufferer.) But did you know that insufficient sleep is also associated with a lower basal metabolic rate, a decrease in insulin sensitivity, and increased weight gain? [4],[5],[6] One review states, “Sleep loss has emerged as a risk factor comparable to that of physical inactivity for the development of insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, and type 2 diabetes mellitus.”[7]

The evidence suggests that widespread sleep deficiency may be contributing to the current epidemic of obesity.

Sleep deficiency also up-regulates the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, and increases hunger and food intake.[8] Sleep deprivation leads to increased cravings for sugary, high-fat foods, which can trigger overeating.[9],[10],[11],[12],[13] A 2019 study of adult women observed that a single night of modest sleep reduction (by a mere 33%) increased food intake by nearly 150 calories the next day.[14] These maladaptive responses may result in weight gain, particularly if they are experienced chronically.[14]

In fact, the evidence suggests that widespread sleep deficiency may be contributing to the current epidemic of obesity.[15] A meta-analysis of 11 different studies found that short sleep duration (six hours or less per night) was associated with a 45% increased risk of obesity compared with normal sleep.[16] In short sleepers, strategies to increase sleep duration have been suggested to help prevent weight gain or to facilitate weight loss.[15]

Can you “make up” for lost sleep?

Obtaining extra sleep during the weekend is a common strategy people use to recover from sleep loss incurred during the work week. Surely if you catch up on those missing hours over the weekend then all will be ok?

This question was investigated in a study published in February of 2019.[17] The team first studied a group of 14 young adults who slept for only 5 hours each night for 9 consecutive nights, compared with a second control group who slept up to 9 hours each night. The sleep-deprived individuals snacked more after dinner and had impaired insulin sensitivity compared with the controls.

Regular extended periods of wholesome sleep are the best way to avoid the metabolic effects of sleep loss.

In a third group, an additional 14 participants who slept only 5 hours per night during the week were then allowed to sleep as much as they wanted over the weekend. Unfortunately, the extra weekend sleep did not prevent weight gain or reduced insulin sensitivity. These findings suggest that sleeping in on the weekend probably isn’t enough to reduce health risks related to insufficient sleep during the week.[17] Regular extended periods of wholesome sleep are the best way to avoid the metabolic effects of sleep loss.

Tips to improve your sleep

Do you find it difficult to fall asleep after a stressful day? Individuals with this problem often have brain hyperactivity which can be seen on brain scans, and are known as “highly reactive sleepers.”[18] This response to stress prevents us from disengaging from our environment, a requirement for restful sleep.[19]

To reduce brain hyperactivity, scientists suggest decreasing overall levels of physiologic and emotional arousal before bedtime.[20] This includes turning off the television and electronic devices before bedtime; avoiding caffeine and alcohol at night; learning to relax or meditate; and reducing intrusive thoughts that prevent us from falling asleep.[20]

Certain natural amino acids, namely L-theanine (thee-ah-neen), and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), may help us get a good night’s sleep. L-theanine, which is found in tea, has been shown to reduce psychological and physiological stress responses.[21],[22] Some prescription sedatives act via a similar mechanism, but L-theanine supports restful sleep without sedation.[21],[23]

The oral administration of supplemental GABA has been shown to relieve anxiety and improve sleep in several human studies.

GABA is a non-essential amino acid found in brown rice and fermented foods.[24],[25] GABA also is made in the body from glutamate, and it functions as a neurotransmitter.[26] Low levels of GABA are associated with anxiety, stress disorders, and insomnia.[27],[28],[29] The oral administration of supplemental GABA has been shown to relieve anxiety and improve sleep in several human studies.[30],[31],[32],[33]

Interestingly, a study published in February 2019 showed that a combination of GABA and L-theanine is superior to either ingredient alone.[34] In an animal model, the GABA/theanine combination decreased sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) and improved the duration of NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep, a deeper sleep that is thought to rest both the brain and the body).[34]

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a botanical to consider supplementing for those with difficulty sleeping as well as some of the other aforementioned problems. In addition to helping regulate cortisol levels in the body,[35] it supports healthy sleep,[36],[37] reduces stress-related food cravings,[38] and promotes normal blood glucose levels.[39]

Summary

Getting more sleep would make many of us happier and healthier, and it may even stave off junk food cravings and overeating! To improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, consider ways to reduce stress and anxiety. If you have trouble falling asleep, natural remedies such as L-theanine, GABA, and ashwagandha may help.

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