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Not getting enough sleep can make you fat

Having a hard time losing weight? Nutritionist Madelyn Fernstrom, a “Today” contributor, explains why poor sleep habits can pack on the pounds.
/ Source: TODAY

If you’ve tried to lose weight, you know it’s not easy. But for some of us, it’s even more difficult. Some dieters who are eating less and exercising more still have a hard time dropping those extra pounds. Why? One answer may lie in their sleep habits.

At my weight management clinic at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, one of the first questions I ask my patients is if they’re getting enough sleep. The typical response is usually “terrible,” “not enough,” “I’m up all night,” “I have no time,” or “I’m always tired.” So when I work out a weight-loss plan for these patients, I stress that they get enough sleep. Recent scientific studies show a strong relationship between sleep deprivation and weight gain, even though we don’t know exactly why this occurs. Here are some findings:

  • People who slept less than six hours a night experienced an increase in their body mass index (height-to-weight ratio) more than those who slept seven to eight hours.
  • Women who slept five hours a day, or less, gained more weight than those who slept seven hours a day, according to a 16-year study.
  • People who slept less than eight hours a day had larger increases in body fat than those who slept more.

How does sleep affect our bodies?Our bodies’ major activities, including temperature regulation, hormone secretion, and brain chemistry production, run on a 24-hour cycle. When our bodies aren’t in a regular sleep pattern (think jet lag), hormones that regulate whether we feel full or hungry get out of whack, so all of our normal cues for eating are altered. An undiagnosed medical illness might also cause poor sleep habits. Someone with an underactive thyroid gland, for instance, will feel fatigued and gain weight. And someone who suffers from sleep apnea will wake up repeatedly during the night.

How does sleep affects eating?When we’re tired, or feeling fatigued, we don’t always make the healthy food choices:

  • We’ll snack right before we go to bed to relax.
  • We’ll have a quick pick-me-up snack during the day, when we’re feeling sleepy or fatigued.
  • We won’t stick with our healthy eating plan. When we’re tired and sleep deprived, we tend to make poor food choices, and rely on higher calorie comfort food.

How to catch more zzz’s?
We live in a hectic world with many responsibilities. Trying to juggle work, family, chores, and recreation, it’s no wonder many of us think: “I can’t waste time sleeping.” We also live in stressful times, and often our mental stress prevents sleep, even when we set aside seven to eight hours. This is a real double whammy for weight loss: we eat to relieve stress, but also can’t sleep because we’re too stressed out!

Many people also have physical problems that awaken them from sleep, including sleep apnea and diabetes. (Diabetics often make several trips to the bathroom during the night.) Sleep apnea, often seen in overweight and obese people, is a condition of waking up repeatedly throughout the night. Often the person doesn’t realize that he’s waking during the night, but he’ll feel tired in the morning. Significant snoring usually accompanies this condition. So if you’re tired and gaining weight, it’s important to see your doctor to make sure you don’t medical problems.

While the obvious solution is to sleep eight hours each night, the real-life answer is not so easy. Here some steps you can take to help regain some control and minimize the likelihood that lack of sleep will sabotage your weight-loss efforts:

  • Try to set a regular schedule. Eat regularly — at least three to four times each day. Aim for seven hours of sleep. Creating some structure in your life. And make sleep a priority.
  • Don’t use food to “wake you up.” Take a power nap between 15 and 20 minutes instead. Always think before you eat and make a healthy choice. Avoid junk food, which may be comforting, but it won’t give you a metabolic pick-me-up. If you feel like you need an energy boost, eat a piece of fresh fruit, a half asandwich made with lean protein (such as turkey, chicken or tuna), somelow-fat cheese or low-fat yogurt, a 100-calorie protein bar, ora100-calorie pack of crackers.
  • Address your stress. Separate mental fatigue (stress) from physical fatigue. Try to reduce your stress levels by taking a 20-minute walk, and increasing your activity of daily living. This can help promote a more restful sleep. Wear a pedometer and monitor your activity. Aim for 10,000 steps daily for optimal weight management. In the beginning, set a more realistic goal of at least 5,000 steps a day.
  • See your doctor to rule out any medical illnesses contributing to lack of sleep and weight gain.

Madelyn Fernstrom’s Bottom Line: While we cannot always get a full eight hours of sleep every night, chronic sleep deprivation (for any reason) can be a major sabotage to losing weight and keeping it off. If you are committed to long term weight loss — or just weight stability – examine your sleep patterns. Getting more sleep can make a big difference in your waist line.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., CNS,is the founder and director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Weight Management Center An associate professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Fernstrom is also a board certified Nutrition Specialist from theAmerican College of Nutrition.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.