You Snooze, You Lose (Weight)

When most people think about trying to lose weight, they think about watching every calorie they eat and doing endless amounts of exercise.  But if you’ve been doing just that and still not losing weight (and…gasp…maybe even gaining weight), it may be time to consider if you’re getting enough zzzzz’s.    Research on sleep having a powerful impact on your weight is increasingly mounting.  In general, children and adults who don’t get enough sleep tend to weigh more than those who do get enough sleep.  In the Nurses’ Health Study – the largest and longest study to date on adult sleep habits and weight – 68,000 middle-age American women were followed for up to 16 years. Compared to women who slept seven hours a night, women who slept five hours or less were 15 % more likely to become obese over the course of the study.

How can this be, you might ask?   It turns out that not only does sleep give our body a chance to rest and prepare for the next day, but sleep is also an important regulator of metabolism and appetite.  When you are sleep-deprived, hormones that regulate metabolism and hunger are affected.  Ghrelin, a hormone that triggers appetite increases, while Leptin, a hormone that signals your brain to stop eating, decreases.  The result?  Sleep less = Eat more.  In fact, according to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, sleep-deprived participants ate an average of 300 more calories per day.

To add insult to injury, people who are sleep deprived have also been shown more likely to consume high carbohydrate, high calorie food.   It makes sense that if you’re feeling tired and low on energy, chances are you’re going to reach for a quick “pick-me-up” like potato chips, a donut, or other comfort food to give you a boost.  In addition to eating more, when you are deprived of sleep, you might be less inclined to exercise.  You might just feel too tired to hit the gym or too tired to take the stairs and opt instead for the elevator.  Evidence of the sleep and weight connection is so strong that the Canadian Obesity Network has included adequate sleep in its new set of obesity management tools for physicians.

So what is the ideal amount of sleep?   According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), most adults should aim for 7-9 hours a night. Unfortunately, also according to NSF, almost 6 out of 10 Americans report having insomnia and sleep problems at least a few nights a week.  So what can we do to ensure we’re getting those zzzz’s?  Here are some tips:


  • Schedule: Stick to a sleep schedule , even on weekends.
  • Bedtime: Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.
  • Turn off electronics before be: Avoid watching TV or using the computer late at night and too close to bedtime.
  • Don’t consume a lot of caffeine, especially in the evening: Caffeine is in coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, non-herbal teas, and some pain relievers. Also, stop eating at least two hours before you go to bed. The digestive process can disrupt your sleep cycle.
  • De-Stress: Does you mind start racing when you get into bed, worrying about the things you didn’t get done today or what you need to do tomorrow?  Try writing down your worries, along with an action you can take to address each one, and then put the list in a drawer for the night.
  • Relax: Try to practice a relaxing bedtime ritual such as a warm bath, reading, or maybe some deep breathing and meditation.
  • Exercise: Daily exercise can help ensure better sleep.  Aim for 30 minutes a day.  But be careful not to workout too close to bedtime, as it may interfere with sleep.
  • Dietary Supplements: Certain supplements may help you to relax naturally and fall asleep.

For example:


5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a derivative of tryptophan and the immediate precursor of serotonin.  Serotonin is a chemical in the brain  which plays a key role in sleep by slowing down nerve transmissions, relaxing your brain and body and encouraging deep sleep.  According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, in one study, people who took 5-HTP went to sleep quicker and slept more deeply than those who took a placebo.


L-theanine is an amino acid commonly found in green tea that may help to promote a calm, relaxed mood. Studies have shown l-theanine to have a direct influence on brain activity, such as reducing stress. Taking l-theanine before bed may help you to naturally relax so you can fall asleep.


Calcium helps the brain use the amino acid tryptophan to manufacture the sleep-inducing substance melatonin. This explains why dairy products, which contain both tryptophan and calcium, are one of the top sleep-inducing foods (i.e. the time-honored glass of warm milk).


Magnesium aids in calming the nerves and relaxing the muscles, which in turn can help you fall asleep. Similarly, a deficiency of the mineral is sometimes responsible for the nervousness and insomnia that prevents sleep.


Choline is an essential B vitamin with many roles in the body, including its role as a precursor to the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is produced all day long, but production is significantly higher during REM sleep.

Overall, science and research overwhelmingly agree that there is a strong connection between a lack of sleep and weight gain.  If you’ve been sticking to a diet and exercising and still haven’t been able to lose weight, it may be time to seriously consider your sleep habits. Your body and your waistline will thank you for it.


  1. Patel SR., & Hu, FB. (2008). Short sleep duration and weight gain: a systematic review. Obesity (Silver Spring), 16, 643-53.
  2. Patel SR., Malhotra A., White DP., Gottlieb DJ., & Hu FB (2006). Association between reduced sleep and weight gain in women. Am J Epidemiol, 164, 947-54.
  3. St-Onge, MP., Roberts, AL., Chen, J., Kelleman, M., O’Keeffe, M., Roychoudhury, A., & Jones, PJ (2008).  Short sleep duration increases energy intakes but does not change energy expenditure in normal