Sleep deprivation and metabolism have a lot more in common than you might think. With Daylight Savings time upon us, I thought there’s no better time than to address the health issues surrounding poor sleep!
You might know this story all too well: you and some girlfriends get together for a night out and you’re up until 2 a.m. Your sleep was less than optimal. Work the next day is miserable. You grab a latte from the nearest coffee shop, and all you feel like eating is chocolate and potato chips. After lunch, your caffeine and sugar buzz have worn off and you’re more tired than ever! Cookies for dinner? Sure, why not!
When you’re sleep deprived, it’s important to have healthy go-to meals, like this One Pan Garam Masala Chicken & Rice with Chickpeas & Kale, or Chicken & Butternut Squash Enchiladas, or Coconut Curry Ramen Noodle Soup! (I mean, of course there’s nothing wrong with Coconut Flour Chocolate Chip Cookies or Chocolate Hazelnut Tarts!!)
Sleep is one aspect of our health that’s widely overlooked and undervalued. Sleep (and the quality of sleep!) plays a crucial role in our hunger hormones, metabolism, and mental clarity. Our sleep patterns are highly regulatory of our weight, metabolism, body mass index, and release of hormones by the pituitary gland. Sleep affects the release of hormones of leptin, ghrelin, cortisol, and growth hormone. It also regulates glucose tolerance and insulin secretion. So a lot happens while you’re catching some Zzz’s!
Let’s talk about the physiology of sleep deprivation and metabolism: The main hunger hormones are leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is derived from fat. When signaled, it tells the body that it’s eaten enough; the result is appetite suppression and the feeling of fullness. Ghrelin, on the other hand, is produced in the stomach and stimulates hunger. These are both directly involved in metabolism and the regulation of appetite.
While you’re sleeping, leptin levels increase, telling your brain and body there’s no need for calorie intake. But when you’re deprived of a good night’s rest, leptin production is decreased, triggering inappropriate hunger cues during the day.
Ghrelin levels, in contrast, decrease while you’re sleeping. When you’re sleep-deprived, ghrelin levels don’t have time to drop. This is what causes you to be hungry throughout the day. What’s the first thing you reach for when you’re sleep-deprived and hangry? The sweet stuff, like simple, refined carbohydrates (i.e. those muffins your coworker brought).
In a recent study, shorter sleep duration was associated with an increase in BMI (body mass index), an increase in ghrelin levels, and a decrease in leptin levels. On average, people who regularly get less than 7 hours of sleep per night produce 16% less leptin and 15% more ghrelin than those who receive 8 hours of sleep each night [source]. A lack of sleep alters the ability of your hunger hormones to signal true caloric need.
As a whole, our country is sleeping less, stressing out more, eating more, and constantly hungry from the empty calories we’re consuming.
Good sleep also plays a role in elevated cortisol production and insulin resistance. Cortisol is the stress hormone and while good in small doses, chronically high levels of cortisol can wreak havoc. Chronic stress is everywhere, from emails that need addressing to stressing about what to cook for dinner and getting your kids to piano lessons. Chronic stress can contribute to worsening sleep, causing additional stress, and the cycle continues.
Insulin resistance is another huge problem in America. Because of our poor sleep patterns, sedentary lifestyles, and abundance of convenience foods, our country has been seeing a steady rise in the number of people with Type 2 Diabetes. When you aren’t sleeping properly, your body has a harder time regulating glucose and insulin secretion. If you’re eating more during the day and have a dysregulation of insulin and glucose at night, then you’re bound to experience some weight gain, especially around the abdomen and visceral organs. It’s this belly fat that increases your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes. Yet another link between sleep deprivation and metabolism!!
Short periods of sleep deprivation are common (like that girls’ weekend last month) and compensating for a lack of sleep with poor dietary choices the next day won’t impact you much in the long run. But if sleep deprivation becomes a chronic issue, the research is pretty clear: the result is chronic bodily stress and weight gain due to dysregulation of leptin and ghrelin. Even if your diet is healthy, you still may have ill effects from a lack of sleep.
So now that you know the link between sleep deprivation and metabolism, I just want to note that the quality of sleep is also important. People with fragmented sleep, like obstructive sleep apnea or night terrors experience poorer quality sleep.
So what can you do about your sleep deprivation and metabolism?
- Rest and get better-quality sleep. If you typically crawl into bed at 11 p.m. and wake up at 4:30 a.m. to exercise, you’re doing your body a disservice. Get to bed earlier to make up for those precious hours, or skip a few days at the gym. Rest is extremely important, so focus on that first!
- Eat for your body’s needs. When sleep-deprived, we tend to reach for foods that will give us a quick energy boost. Muffins, chocolate, chips and crackers are among the few. We also have a tendency to gravitate toward sugar-laden drinks like lattes and cappuccinos. Combat this by having healthy snacks on hand for days you feel exhausted. Instead, grab a protein and fat source and a fibrous carbohydrate, like an apple and peanut butter or mixed nuts, yogurt, and berries.
- Implement physical activity. If you aren’t moving your body, it’s time to start! Just don’t make it a habit of working out within 3 hours of bedtime; it could keep you awake. Regular physical activity actually helps you sleep better (and it works best if you exercise in the morning)!
- Adopt a nighttime routine. If you’re used to coming home from work, eating a haphazard dinner, and crashing on the couch, it’s time to rethink your bedtime routine. I routinely recommend better sleep hygiene to my patients. This means powering down all electronic devices at least 1 hour before bed and doing a relaxing activity, such as taking a hot bath, drinking tea, or reading. Make it a point to crawl into bed at the same time each night and set an alarm to wake up at the same time. This will give your body expectations on a daily basis.
The link between sleep deprivation and metabolism is such a strong one! I know it’s hard after Daylight Savings time, but do your body (and your health!) a favor – catch some good quality sleep!