Can sleep make you fat?

 

Sugar (4)

You’ve got the diet under control (aside from a cheeky sweet treat here and there), have skipped the last few Friday night drinks, and are making friends with the treadmill at the gym – but you just can’t seem to shift those last few kilos and you don’t know why.

The answer might be as easy as hitting the snooze button (finally! some health advice that’s easy to follow!)

Does a missed hour or two of sleep really affect us that much?

Having enough good quality sleep can have a big impact on your health. If you find your zzz’s being replaced for an extra hour of TV, a night of socialising with friends or reading another chapter of your book, it could be doing you more harm than you think.

The link between poor sleep habits and mental health is well documented; with less than 5 hours sleep a night increasing your risk of depression and anxiety. Poor sleep can also affect weight and eating habits.

How does poor sleep affects our eating habits?

A lack of sleep can waver even the strongest willpower, putting paid to plans of healthy eating and a session at the gym. Research consistently shows that a lack of good quality sleep results in health problems from weight gain, obesity, depression and even has links to chronic disease. It can affect our eating habits in some of the following ways.

1. Hormonal effects

An increasing body of research is starting to show that a lack of sleep can affect the hormones that control hunger. Higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of leptin have been found in sleep-deprived individuals.

Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates our appetite, while leptin is a hormone that reduces our hunger signals. The changes in hormone levels has the effect of making us feel more hungry and less satisfied when we do eat.

2. More time to eat

Being awake for longer means more opportunity to eat. If you are awake several hours longer than normal, it is likely you will eat more food.fridge with food

Research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine found that a group of participants who went to bed at 4.00am ate 550 more calories compared to the group of participants who went to bed at 10.00pm.

Tellingly, the participants ate these calories between 10.00pm and 4.00am, when would have otherwise been asleep.

3. Energy hit

Our brain and muscles work best when we give them a steady supply of carbohydrates. Carbohydrate foods not only include rice, noodles, pasta, fruit and vegetables, but also things like coke, chocolate and lollies. Our bodies break carbohydrates down to glucose, which feeds our brain and muscles, giving us energy to think, to move and to work.

If we feel tired and flat, our body will start to crave foods that will provide us with a quick burst of energy. Our bodies are smart, and know that a chocolate bar or coke will give us a quicker rush of energy than slow burning brown bread or fruit. So that’s when the lollies in the kitchen start to look more appealing and we reach for a handful to give us a quick hit of energy.

Because these foods are broken down in our body quickly, the hit of energy rapidly leads to an energy slump, making us more tired and in need of another hit of energy. Thus, a vicious cycle begins.

Cravings for sugary foods and caffeine are common when we are sleep deprived; so it’s more likely we will consume higher-kilojoule sweet foods or sugary, caffeinated drinks.

4. Too tired for exercise

If you feel tired, the sofa and re-runs on TV starts to look more appealing that that run you planned to do. Exercise can fall by the wayside when we lack sleep, which can be a factor in weight gain.

5. Poor impulse control

Research has shown that people who are tired are more impulsive, making it harder for them to resist food and more likely for them to comfort eat. And comfort foods don’t tend to feature salads or fruit…

A study from UC Berkeley found that after a poor night’s sleep, the parts of the brain that deal with automatic behaviour are extra active, while the parts which affect self-control were more inhibited.

Meaning? A tired person will be more likely to follow their instinct rather than make more conscious, healthy decisions. A lack of sleep blunts the parts our brain associated with good judgement and decision-making, and amplifies the parts that control desire.

Woman sleeping on white background

So what can you do?

When you start to hit the snooze button one too many times and need a double espresso before you can even think about leaving the house, it might be time to think about your sleeping habits.

1. Aim for 7-8 hours of good quality sleep a night as a general guide.

Not every adult needs this much, but if you are waking up without hitting the snooze button and feel energised without a double espresso – it is a good sign that you are getting enough shut-eye.

Signs you can be sleep deprived include:

  • Constant yawning
  • Feeling the need to sleep or dozing off in in front of the TV, in meetings and so on
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability or grouchiness
  • Craving specific foods such as sugar or caffeine

2. Prep for success

Fill your desk at work, your fridge and your pantry with slow-burning energy foods to grab when you need a pick-me-up. This might be a bag of nuts, chic-nuts, salsa and rice crackers or a protein ball. When you have healthy snacks on hand, you will be more likely to eat these than the less healthy options available, giving you longer lasting, slow burning energy during the day.

3. Sip on water

If you find yourself succumbing to 3.30itis, try sipping on a glass of water. It’s common to feel tired in the afternoon but it can also be a sign of mild dehydration, which causes fatigue and sleepiness, so use this time to get up, have a stretch and fill up your water bottle.

Don’t skimp on good quality sleep; treat yourself to some extra time in bed and your body will thank you for it!

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