Lack of Sleep and Weight Gain by Laura Vater, MD, MPH
Updated: Feb 20
This weekend I reached out to Laura Vater, MD, MPH, Internal Medicine physician and creator of the SMILE Score. We talked about why lack of sleep leads to overeating and weight gain.
Why is sleep important?
Sleep is essential for health.
When we don’t get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night, there are many health consequences other than just feeling tired. Sleep deprivation compromises our immune system, increasing our risk of getting sick. It also increases the chance we will feel depressed, overeat, and gain weight.
Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer. Further, when we don’t sleep enough or feel restored in the morning, we may not have the energy or motivation to make other healthy choices.
How does sleep deprivation cause weight gain?
Not getting adequate sleep can alter our metabolism and make it harder to maintain a healthy weight. This happens for a number of reasons.
First, sleep deprivation increases our appetite. When we don’t sleep enough, the hormone that makes us feel hungry (ghrelin) is increased. At the same time, the hormone that suppresses appetite tells us we are full (leptin) is decreased. The stress hormone cortisol also increases, which further increases our appetite. As a result, we feel hungrier, yet don’t feel as full after we’ve eaten.
Second, it’s harder to make healthy food choices when we feel tired. When we don’t get enough sleep, the reward centers in our brain are more stimulated by food. Our impulse control is also affected, making it harder to make good decisions. At the same time, we may not have the energy or motivation to prepare healthier options when we’re tired. This combination of factors leads us to eat foods we might not otherwise eat when we are rested.
Third, sleep deprivation affects our metabolism and makes it more likely our bodies will hold on to fat. When we don’t get enough sleep, our ability to process insulin is reduced (insulin sensitivity may drop by as much as 30%). When we don’t respond to insulin, more sugar (glucose) stays in the blood. This signals our bodies to make more insulin, which makes us feel hungrier and also stores calories as fat. The increased stress hormone, cortisol, also signals the body to conserve energy by holding on to fat.
How do I get better sleep?
There are many reasons why more than a third of Americans do not get the recommended 7-9 hours per night. Stress, anxiety, artificial light at night, shift work or long working hours, too much caffeine, chronic pain, and urinary issues can all contribute.
These strategies can help improve sleep:
1. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. Keep the television out of the bedroom and turn off audible phone notifications.
2. Be consistent. Go to bed and arise at the same times each day. If you are a shift worker or work long hours, prioritize sleep when you can.
3. Reduce your exposure to artificial light at night by decreasing evening screen usage, or by turning on the night shift feature (warm back light) on your phone.
4. If you have a medical reason for not sleeping well, such as chronic pain, anxiety, frequent urination, sleep apnea, or hot flashes, talk to your doctor about strategies to help.
Poor sleep increases appetite, affects our metabolism, and makes it harder to make healthy food choices. Getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night is important for many reasons, including for maintaining a healthy weight.
Laura Vater, MD, MPH
Laura B. Vater, MD, MPH is an Internal Medicine physician and will be starting a fellowship in Hematology/Oncology at Indiana University School of Medicine in July. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame, a Master of Public Health from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, and a Doctor of Medicine from Indiana University School of Medicine.
Her work is focused on helping patients live the best quality of life possible, even in the midst of serious illness. Her interests include cancer prevention, health communication, and clinician well-being. In 2017, she developed a tool to help patients and health care providers simplify and prioritize health (the SMILE Score). This tool is being used by clinicians, patients, and educators throughout the U.S.
Laura has a pre-school-age daughter and a golden retriever. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and hiking with her family.