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Wellness & Prevention

Research shows that sleep deprivation can lead to a bigger waistline.

Lose sleep, gain pounds

As we get fewer hours of sleep, changes in our body can lead to weight gain and other health consequences. Find tips for getting better sleep.
Anne Stein
Contributing Writer
Research shows that sleep deprivation can lead to a bigger waistline.

Do you wake up fatigued most mornings? Are you somewhat intrigued by those ads for 5-hour ENERGY drinks?

You’re not alone.

According to a National Sleep Foundation poll, we’re averaging just 6.5 to 7 hours of sleep per night, compared to 8.5 hours a night in the pre-Internet, pre-cable TV days of 1960.

We’re also experiencing a skyrocketing obesity rate, with nearly 72 million U.S. adults classified as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Now sleep experts are saying that lack of sleep is linked to weight gain in both kids and adults.

Most adults need seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. When we get less than that, the hormone ghrelin, which signals our brain to eat, increases, and the hormone leptin, which tells our brain that we’ve eaten enough, decreases. In other words, we like to eat when we’re tired, even if we’re full.

Sleep deprivation also increases the stress hormone cortisol. To calm ourselves, we crave high carbohydrate, high fat comfort foods.

“Most of our schedules have become 24/7,” said Dr. Basheer Farooki, a pulmonologist and sleep physician at Swedish Covenant Hospital, explaining why we’re sleeping less. “Shift work creates sleep disturbances, and television and the Internet also take up time at night.”

Kids, who need even more sleep than adults (from 10-14 hours, depending on their age), are staying up late texting, playing video games and social networking, says Michael Decker, associate professor and member of the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University.

“Sleep’s always been considered a disposable commodity,” Decker said. “It’s something we forego to achieve other things, but we harm ourselves when we do that.”

Long-term studies have shown that toddlers who don’t get enough sleep have a higher chance of being overweight or obese by age 7 than those who get enough sleep.

The apnea epidemic

Our obesity rate has affected sleep in another way: Obstructive sleep apnea — when breathing is repeatedly interrupted throughout the night — has increased dramatically because of obesity, said Farooki. Fat is deposited in the neck area, which is the narrowest portion of the airway tract. In the daytime, muscles keep that area open. When we sleep, the muscles relax and narrow the airway, causing snoring. When the airway becomes even narrower, he says, it can lower oxygen levels and put people at risk for heart disease, stroke and heart rhythm problems.

About 80 percent of the sleep apnea patients Farooki sees are obese, he said. Symptoms of apnea include feeling tired throughout the day, loud snoring, and falling asleep at work or after lunch. Hard-to-control heart disease and high blood pressure may also be symptoms.

At Swedish Covenant Hospital’s sleep lab, Farooki observes patients overnight to determine what’s causing sleep problems. 

“If I don’t suspect sleep apnea or see obesity, then a patient’s problem may be related to how much they sleep,” said Farooki. “Normally our body needs seven to nine hours of sleep. If we sleep less than that our needs aren’t met. Over a period of time, your body gets used to getting just five hours of sleep, but you’ll feel tired all the time.”

Tips for getting more and better sleep, from Dr. Basheer Farooki, pulmonologist and sleep physician at Swedish Covenant Hospital:

• Go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. Your body will let you know what these times are — some of us are night owls while others like getting to bed earlier. Either way, get seven to nine hours of sleep a night.

• Don’t watch TV or use a computer just before bedtime. Both of them stimulate your brain.

• Cut off caffeine six hours before bedtime.

• Eat at least three to four hours before bed, and avoid heavy meals.

• If you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something else until your body and mind feel tired.

• If you have trouble falling asleep, try meditation, listening to soothing music, a warm bath or other nighttime rituals that signal it’s time to sleep.