Is Your Lack of Sleep Impacting Your Weight?

“Sleep is for the weak.”  “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”  Ever heard or even used one of these sayings?  I’m sure I have at some point.  People, especially women, tend to take pride in their ability to function on minimal sleep.  But the reality of it is, we need sleep. I’ll say it again…WE NEED SLEEP!  We actually need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.  Myself, I need closer to 9 to function at my best.  

Sleep & the Nervous System

By the way...this is exactly what I look like when I'm awaken from blissful sleep.

Sleep is something I talk about with most of my clients.  I do this because most of my clients aren’t sleeping enough to aid in their goal for total wellness.  We talk about strategies to alter sleep habits and why sleep is so important.  It’s a tough thing to comply with but once you get the hang of actually sleeping the amount you need each night, you’ll wonder how you functioned before.  We’re going to take a detour for a minute and talk about the nervous system.  But hang with me, it all comes together at the end.  Promise!

We have several arms of our nervous system.  We have two sub-branches of the nervous system.   One is called the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) or better known as your “Fight or Flight” system, and the other is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) or better called “Rest and Digest.” Think of it this way…if you’re at work and getting emails, phone calls, have a boss breathing down your neck, and are thinking about everything you need to get done…your SNS is ramped up and working hard.  When you finally get home, kick up your feet, and turn on the TV, you’re SNS is slowing and your PSNS is ramping up.  So, what happens during each that’s sooooo important?  Thanks for asking!

Every time I think of arms, this joke comes to mind!

When our SNS is active, are heart rates are increased, our blood pressure rises, our digestion slows, and our bodies are flooded with various hormones to help increase our focus, drive, and energy levels.  This is all great if we’re trying to outrun a Cheetah.  Unfortunately, our body does not know the difference between trying to outrun a giant cat drooling and snarling because it wants us for a snack and being stressed out because of work or home commitments.  We have the same response to both…unfortunately.

When our PSNS is active, our heart rate slows, our blood pressure drops, and digestion ramps back up.  Basically, the opposite of the SNS.  This occurs when we destress such as relaxing by the pool, hanging with friends, being one with nature, or sleeping. 

Because we tend to live high stress lives, we have very little low stress times, which is why sleep is so important.  Aside from all the benefits of adequate sleep such as hormone regulation, immune system regulation, increased focus, increased drive and motivation, and decreased depression, inadequate sleep is linked to weight gain and obesity.  This is because of a few reasons we will dissect below.

Hormones, Digestion, & Immune System

First, hormone regulation. Leptin and ghrelin are two hormones that are affected by lack of sleep.  Leptin is the satiety hormone…it tells us when we are full and no longer want food.  Ghrelin is the hunger hormone…it tells us that we are hungry so we know that we need to eat.  When we are sleep deprived, we have an increased amount of ghrelin and decreased leptin making us hungrier than we really need to be and never allowing for the signal of fullness to be sent.  Overtime, this can lead to weight gain.

Now let’s be clear, sleep deprivation is anything less than what your body needs to perform optimally. Mine is about 8.5 to 9 hours.  If you need 8 and you’re cruising through each day on 6 hours, your hunger hormones are going to be imbalanced. Increased eating beyond the body’s need leads to increased weight.  Which is why there is a higher incidence of obesity amongst the sleep deprived. 

To add on to this, sleep deprivation increases an individual’s risk for developing Type 2 Diabetes.  This is because when we are sleep deprived, our body’s ability to effectively process glucose (our main form of energy) decreases.  This leads to more free-flowing glucose in the body.  And excess glucose is stored in the form of triglycerides in the body…aka abdominal fat.

This is where we tie things together with the PSNS.  On top of gaining weight when we aren’t sleeping enough, we aren’t losing weight either, despite our best efforts.  You can be full with food and still be malnourished.  Malnourished means we aren’t getting the nutrients our body needs to function.  If you’re stressed throughout the day, digestion slows down or shuts down in some instances.  Most of us are stressed throughout the day.  This is why we need sleep to help ramp up digestion and repair our bodies…recall PSNS is also called “Rest and Digest.” 

People think they are digesting well because they’re pooping.  A poop a day does not mean you’re digesting.  It means you’re breaking down food particles and moving them through your intestines.  The other, very important piece of digestion is absorption.  We need nutrients to feed the cells of the body…this aids in weight loss.  If we aren’t sleeping, we aren’t digesting.  If we aren’t digesting, we’re starving our cells of nutrients.  If we are starving our cells, we will gain weight.

So…what are you going to do to change your sleep habits to aid in maintaining a healthy weight?

Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS

I'm Sunny! I'm a board-certified clinical nutritionist with an MS in Clinical Nutrition. I help individuals reduce fatigue, eliminate bloat, and lose weight by healing the digestive tract and balancing hormones. I provide individual and group nutrition consultations nationwide. Join my closed Facebook group today! https://www.facebook.com/groups/140571826548289/

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