One of the questions I’m often asked by patients is: does sleep affect weight loss? In short, the answer is YES, and MUCH more than you may think.
Let’s dive into the science to understand the connection between sleep and weight loss. Then, we’ll explore evidence-based tips for improving your sleep quality!
As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.
The Science Behind Sleep and Weight Loss
There is a LOT of research showing how important sleep is for weight loss. You may be surprised to find out that sleep can influence your biology and your behavior.
Sleep Duration and Food Reward
Did you know that not getting enough sleep increases your cravings for junk food? Yang and colleagues (2019) asked women who normally sleep 8-9 hours per night to sleep just 5.5-6 hours. After just ONE night of less sleep, women reported more junk food cravings and ate about 150 more calories at lunchtime!
Brain studies using fMRI have found that sleeping less than 8 hours per night makes your brain more motivated to seek out quick rewards, like junk food (Rihm et al., 2019). In addition to wanting more rewards, the parts of the brain that control decision making are less active (Durracio et al., 2019)!
Taken together, sleep deprivation leads to:
More cravings for rewards like junk food + less resources to make thoughtful decisions = overeating
Sleep Quality and Weight Loss
Research studies have also looked at whether sleeping less impacts weight loss over the long run. Larsen and colleagues (2020) found a strong relationship between 12-month changes in body mass index (BMI) and sleep quality. People who slept less than 6 hours per night had the highest BMI, whereas people who slept 8-9 hours per night had the lowest BMI.
Also, the number of hours people sleep per night has been related to maintaining their weight loss progress (Ross et al., 2016).
The reason for these findings includes the biological changes that lead to junk food cravings. In addition, getting less sleep impacts your behavior! If you’re tired, you’re less likely to meal prep or go for the afternoon walk you planned. All of these decisions, plus the increased cravings you’re having, make it much more difficult to stick to your healthy lifestyle!
Evidence-Based Strategies to Improve Sleep
Thankfully, science-supported interventions for improving sleep quality have been extensively studied.
Weight Loss Improves Sleep!
Good news- transforming your eating and activity habits is going to help your sleep! As you lose weight, sleep quality and duration begins to improve (Gonnissen et al., 2013). This may relate to improvements in weight-related sleep conditions like sleep apnea, which affects between 25-45% of people with higher body weights (Romero-Corral et al., 2010)!
It appears that losing just 5% of your body weight (about 13 pounds if your starting weight is 250lbs) can improve your sleep. If you aren’t already measuring your body weight, it can be one helpful indicator of progress as you change your eating and activity habits. I strongly recommend this scale by Renpho because it tracks body weight and 11 measures of body composition, like body fat percentage and muscle mass.
Reduce Screen Time
Yes, I’m guilty of scrolling through social media and answering emails at night, too. But this is one of the top evidence-based strategies for improving your sleep quality.
The general recommendation is to turn off your electronic devices (computers, phones, TVs, etc.) about one hour before you plan to go to sleep. This reduces your exposure to the blue light that electronic devices emit, which can prevent your body from releasing sleep hormones.
You can also consider wearing blue light glasses when you are on your devices in the evening (after dinner), before you turn your electronics off. I would recommend this if you are currently having a hard time logging off your devices and going to sleep!
Set a Consistent Bedtime and Wake-Up Time
The central strategy of cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (and other sleep difficulties) is to set a consistent bedtime and wake-up time each day (weekday or weekend). The more regular you can make your sleep schedule, the more your body will learn exactly when to start releasing those sleep hormones.
This strategy is most helpful if you are having a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep during the night.
Try to set a reminder on your phone at the same time each night for one hour before you need to go to sleep. This will be your cue to turn off your electronics and start your bedtime wind-down routine. Then, have another alarm set for the same time each morning to wake up.
Sticking to your wake-up time is the most important part of regulating your sleep hormones. So, if you go to bed later on the weekend than your weekday bedtime, you should still try to wake up at your normal time.
Create Bedtime Rituals You Love
Having a relaxing routine for winding down at the end of the day that you look forward to can help you stay motivated to stick to your bedtime. Consider this prime time for self-care and stress relief!
Ideas for a relaxing bedtime ritual include:
- Start diffusing essential oils like lavender about one hour before you go to bed
- Read in bed while listening to a white noise machine to help you relax
- Take a long, hot shower or epsom salt bubble bath with aromatherapy
- Write in a gratitude journal
- Relax your eyes with gentle heat and massage
- Enjoy a cup of herbal tea with valerian root to promote sleep
- Change your bedroom lighting to red (the opposite of blue light) to promote sleep hormones
- Take time for skincare (I swear by Sunday Riley)
When it is time for bed, make sure your room is very dark and cool in temperature to help you fall asleep and stay asleep!
What Will You Try TODAY?
I believe that everyone can improve their sleep quality in some way. Several months ago, I purchased the red lightbulbs for my bedroom to block out blue light while I get ready for bed. I also started doing a luxurious skincare routine that makes me feel taken care of, instead of scrolling through my phone. These strategies have reduced how often I wake up in the middle of the night and make me feel more rested in the morning.
I encourage you to take that first step to improving your sleep quality now! Maybe you will…
- Grab some blue light glasses to wear when you use electronics in the evening
- Set a specific bedtime to stick to this week
- Pamper yourself with some self care by diffusing essential oils while you get ready for bed
Take your first step this evening, and let me know how it goes!
Dr. Schulte’s Summary:
Sleeping less than 8 hours per night can trigger biological signals for junk food cravings and poorer decision making. Sleeping less than 8 hours per night has also been related to less weight loss and less maintenance of progress over time. You can improve your sleep through weight loss, reducing screen time, setting consistent bedtime and wake-up times, and finding a bedtime wind-down routine you truly love.
What will be the first step you take to improve your sleep? Drop a comment below!
Duraccio, K. M., Zaugg, K., & Jensen, C. D. (2019). Effects of sleep restriction on food-related inhibitory control and reward in adolescents. Journal of pediatric psychology, 44(6), 692-702.
Gonnissen, H. K., Adam, T. C., Hursel, R., Rutters, F., Verhoef, S. P., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. (2013). Sleep duration, sleep quality and body weight: parallel developments. Physiology & behavior, 121, 112-116.
Larsen, S. C., Horgan, G., Mikkelsen, M. L. K., Palmeira, A. L., Scott, S., Duarte, C., … & Heitmann, B. L. (2020). Consistent sleep onset and maintenance of body weight after weight loss: An analysis of data from the NoHoW trial. PLoS medicine, 17(7), e1003168.
Rihm, J. S., Menz, M. M., Schultz, H., Bruder, L., Schilbach, L., Schmid, S. M., & Peters, J. (2019). Sleep deprivation selectively upregulates an amygdala–hypothalamic circuit involved in food reward. Journal of neuroscience, 39(5), 888-899.
Romero-Corral, A., Caples, S. M., Lopez-Jimenez, F., & Somers, V. K. (2010). Interactions between obesity and obstructive sleep apnea: implications for treatment. Chest, 137(3), 711–719. https://doi.org/10.1378/chest.09-0360
Ross, K. M., Graham Thomas, J., & Wing, R. R. (2016). Successful weight loss maintenance associated with morning chronotype and better sleep quality. Journal of behavioral medicine, 39(3), 465–471. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-015-9704-8
Yang, C. L., Schnepp, J., & Tucker, R. M. (2019). Increased hunger, food cravings, food reward, and portion size selection after sleep curtailment in women without obesity. Nutrients, 11(3), 663.
Disclaimer: all opinions are my own and are not affiliated with my employers. Please seek medical guidance before pursuing weight loss or making significant changes to the way you eat or your physical activity routine.