Sleep Your Way Into Those Skinny Jeans

January 28, 2011

Happy New Year! What’s on your list of resolutions? Many of you probably have “lose a few pounds” somewhere near the top of the list. And since 2011 is still fresh and new, chances are that you’re actively working toward that goal. We all know that we can accomplish healthy and safe weight loss by being conscious of good nutrition and spending some extra time burning calories at the gym. But did you know that sleep also plays a huge role in weight loss and maintenance of healthy weight?

Over the past few years, many studies have linked reduced sleep with increased weight. This data comes in all shapes and sizes (pun intended). Women (and men) who get less sleep gain more weight, gain weight faster, have a harder time losing weight and have much higher risk for current and future obesity.

Most of us are guilty of not getting enough sleep. Modern life provides us with light and activity well into the night. We stay up late going out with friends, watching TV, working and checking email. But at what cost?

Well, since we’re focusing on weight loss, I’ll lay it on the line. Inadequate sleep totally undermines any effort at losing weight. A study released in October reported that “sleep curtailment decreased the proportion of weight lost as fat by 55% and increased the loss of fat-free body mass by 60%.” Whoa. In non-scientific terms: if you don’t get enough sleep, then you burn muscle instead of fat.

Inadequate sleep also causes hormonal changes including higher levels of cortisol, increased ghrelin and decreased leptin. This is a bad combination. Cortisol is a stress hormone. Chronically high cortisol levels tell your body to move fat to your abdomen. Increased ghrelin and decreased leptin result in increased appetite. Consider these hormonal shifts along with the fact that those who burn the midnight oil tend to go for a late night snack to keep their motor running. Hmmmm…

Most of the studies that have been done on the negative effects of sleep deprivation have examined less than 5.5 hours vs. more than 7-8 hours of sleep and the data is staggering. We’re learning so much more every day about the importance of sleep. We now consider lack of sleep to be a significant contributing factor in high blood pressure, glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and high cholesterol in addition to obesity. We even know that exposure to altered light/dark cycles (which is what we do to ourselves when we stay up late with the lights and/or TV on) can actually make nerve cells shrink, altering thoughts and emotions. Not good. You seriously want to sleep more than 7-8 hours every night. Trust me.

In my opinion, it’s even better to sleep around nine hours per night. Why? An adult sleep cycle is three hours long. When our sleep cycles are interrupted, we don’t get the restorative benefits of all the different levels of sleep. So why not let yourself get three full cycles and go for nine hours? I know that sounds crazy, but do the math. If you have to get up at 7 am, then you go to bed at 10 pm. That’s totally manageable.

If you have a hard time winding down at night, then establish a bedtime ritual. Lower the lights about 30-60 minutes before you want to go to bed. Have a warm bath, brew some chamomile tea, read a good book. It’s best to avoid computers and TV during this time. Light in your eyes = less melatonin production. Melatonin is your natural sleep hormone. You get the idea.

To help you sleep better and for longer, make sure your bedroom is quiet and totally dark. If you have city noise that keeps you up at night, get a white noise machine or an air filter. If you have ambient light that comes in your window, get a blackout curtain. If you have a digital alarm clock with bright lights, cover it up.

Yep, you’re going to sleep your way into those skinny jeans. And even if you’re already in skinny jeans (you lucky girl), adequate sleep will provide a myriad of other benefits. Sweet dreams.

-Dr. Amy Hawkins


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