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Sleep Better for Weight Loss

Publication date: 16 April 2013

I heard about a new research study that shows that fewer hours of sleep in adolescents is associated with greater weight gain (or technically speaking greater increase in body-mass index or BMI) and that sleeping for longer may help reduce obesity. (Here's the link.)

Actually that's no great surprise. A link between sleep and obesity has also been found in adults. And there are quite a number of studies showing the link, as this article on sleep deprivation and obesity makes clear.

Why should this be the case?

Well, we know that generally sleep deprivation degrades brain performance, as the Wikipedia article on sleep deprivation makes clear. Psychometric testing shows attention and working memory are the worse for sleep deprivation, yet interestingly the brain's prefrontal cortex (heavily involved in "executive functions" such as attention and planning) is actually more active in sleep deprived people. This is usually interpreted to mean it is working harder to compensate.

Sleep deprivation seems to stimulate stress hormones, in particular cortisol, which is known to produce damaging effects in the brain when chronically high.

Why should insomnia affect weight loss and weight gain in particular?

One principal mechanism could be hormone dysregulation. I've already mentioned cortisol, which plays a role in blood sugar regulation which is in turn significant for appetite. The hormones leptin and ghrelin, both of which strongly affect appetite and satiety, have  been shown to be affected. Certainly research shows people report increased feelings of hunger after sleep deprivation.

Another significant factor appears to be the loss of self-control or "will power" that follows sleep deprivation. People are more likely to make poor decisions as to what to eat.

Sleep deprivation also seems to lead to decreased energy expenditure.

The bottom line is that if you're overweight or struggle to lose weight then at least part of your strategy should be to make sure you get plenty of sleep, and good quality sleep at that. Of course that's easier said than done. Brain dysregulation is probably both cause and effect of insomnia. Learning to better regulate your brain and nervous system, with neurofeedback and biofeedback, could be part of the answer.

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