When my client Jennifer first came to my office, she weighed 325 pounds. Frustrated because she'd tried every diet and failed, she finally sought me out to get another take on what was "wrong" with her. Yes, her dietary choices left something to be desired and exercise was but a faint memory from high school, but I was more concerned when she told me she couldn’t sleep because of sleep apnea. Now whether the sleep apnea caused the weight problem or the weight problem caused the apnea is kind of a chicken-egg question. What we know is this: there is a very strong relationship between lack of sleep and being overweight or obese, such that overweight and obese individuals sleep, on average, nearly 2 fewer hours per week (~ half an hour a night) than do normal-weight people.

It goes like this: if you get fewer than 5 hours of sleep per night, like Jennifer, you are 73% more likely to be obese. If you average 5 hours, you are 50% more likely to be obese. In fact, children four and under whom routinely get fewer than 10 hours of sleep a night are twice as likely to be overweight or obese five years later than are children who get enough sleep.

Why? It all gets back to our hormones. In an earlier post, we discussed how stress affects your eating habits and propensity to hold onto fat. Lack of sleep is just like seeing a big scary guy coming at you in a dark alley or panicking about losing your keys. To your body, it’s all negative stress. And what happens when your body gets stressed? Too much cortisol and adrenalin, too much body fat around the middle, and too many cravings for high energy foods as your body thinks you need them to fight or flee. Translation: sleep deprivation leads to decreased leptin levels, increased ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. That means you’re going to eat more. How much more? People who only get 4 hours of sleep a night consume almost 25% more calories than people who get 8 hours of sleep a night. Furthermore, lack of sleep makes it more difficult for you to lose fat. People who average 5.5 hours of sleep a night lose 55% less weight as fat and increase the loss of fat-free body mass (e.g., muscle) by 60% as compared to people who average 8.5 hours of sleep each night. Why? It seems that sleep deprivation reduces your metabolism, leading to less fat loss.

So where does that leave us? Given most of my overweight clients are chronically sleep-deprived and sleep is necessary for both optimal mental and physical functioning, it would behoove most of us to sleep a little more each night. I know, I know. You don't have time to sleep. The reality is: you don't have time not to. Even the Centers for Disease Control recognizes lack of sleep as a public health epidemic, as sleep deprivation is related to obesity, chronic disease, and shortened life spans.

What to do?

1) Stick to a sleep schedule - Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day (even on weekends) - this helps regulate your circadian rhythms, which can help you get to sleep faster and stay asleep. That being said, if you can't get to sleep within the first half hour of laying in bed, get up and do something relaxing like listening to soothing music, yoga, meditation, or reading a good book

2) Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, especially in the 3-4 hours before bed, as they can interfere with sleep.

3) Turn off the TV and iPad - screen time may interfere with sleep; unplug at least one hour before bed

4) Exercise - regular exercise promotes healthy sleep, just make sure not to exercise too close to bedtime as your body needs time to cool down and wind down before sleep

5) De-stress - Remember cortisol? Stress and sleep can intertwine in a viscious cycle where you can't sleep because of stress and you're stressed out because you can't sleep. The last thing you need to do right before you go to bed is worry about a big meeting you have at work tomorrow. Do yourself a favor and take out some time for you every day to de-stress and unwind.

Here's to a good night's sleep and a healthy body weight!

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