Weight Loss: Sleeping the Pounds Away

Wouldn’t it be great if you could lose weight by increasing the number of hours you sleep each night? While this isn’t literally true, new research has begun to uncover the critical connection between adequate sleep levels and optimum weight loss. Two recent studies have shown that getting adequate levels of sleep may be just as important as diet and exercise in terms of weight management.

A study published October 5, 2010 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that, “Sleep curtailment decreased the proportion of weight lost as fat by 55% and increased the loss of fat-free body mass by 60%. This was accompanied by markers of enhanced neuroendocrine adaptation to caloric restriction, increased hunger, and a shift in relative substrate utilization toward oxidation of less fat.”

In other words, when the subjects of the study got adequate sleep (around 8 hours), half the weight they lost was from fat. When they cut back on their sleep (to around 6 hours) only one quarter of their weight loss came from fat – the rest came from non-fat body tissues or what the study calls “fat-free body mass.”

In addition, when sleep was less then optimal, the dieter felt hungrier and burned less fat. This was because they produced higher levels of a hormone called ghrelin, which triggers hunger and reduces calorie expenditure. The authors of the study note that higher ghrelin levels, “reduce energy expenditure, stimulate hunger and food intake, [and] promote retention of fat” among other things. Not really a great scenario if you are trying to lose weight.

The study director, Plamen Penev, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, states, “For the first time, we have evidence that the amount of sleep makes a big difference on the results of dietary interventions. One should not ignore the way they sleep when going on a diet. Obtaining adequate sleep may enhance the beneficial effects of a diet. Not getting enough sleep could defeat the desired effects.”

A more recent study reinforces the connection between weight management and sleep. The paper, published March 29, 2011 in the International Journal of Obesity, suggests that if you want to increase your chances of losing weight, reduce your stress level and get adequate sleep.

Nearly 500 obese individuals over age 30 from Kaiser Permanente in Oregon and Washington took part in the study. Eighty-three percent of the participants were women and a quarter of the individuals were over 65. The study involved two stages. During the first phase, the subjects were asked to lose at least ten pounds over six months. They attended weekly group counseling sessions, logged a food diary, exercised for a minimum of three hours per week, and cut 500 calories a day utilizing a low fat, low salt diet that contained generous amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. Only those that succeeded in losing 10 pounds moved on to the second stage of the study, which is looking at the usefulness of an acupressure technique vs other weight management strategies. Those results are not available as yet.

In the first phase of the study, the research subjects were also asked to track levels of sleep and to report insomnia, stress, and depression levels. People with the lowest stress levels who also got more than six hours (but not more than eight hours) of sleep were most likely to lose at least 10 pounds.

Within the medical field, our understanding of how poor sleep contributes to issues such as fibromyalgia, depression, chronic fatigue, and musculoskeletal problems is improving rapidly. Despite this, sleep problems continue to increase in many people’s lives due to several factors: our “always on” culture, the impact of aging, poor diet, family and relationship responsibilities, lack of exercise, work demands, and increasingly more invasive technology. Naturopathic physicians are uniquely positioned to be able to help deal with complex issues such as poor sleep, weight management, stress, and depression. We CAN make a difference. When it comes to challenges like these, we can all use a bit of support. As Steven Wright once reported, “When I woke up this morning my girlfriend asked me, ‘Did you sleep good?’ I said ‘No, I made a few mistakes.'”