Want to know my top strategy for losing fat faster? It has nothing – and everything – to do with the foods you eat and the exercise you do. The missing component in most people’s fat loss programs (and healthy life programs) is a good night’s sleep. Every night. I’m not just talking about sleeping enough. In order to be your best, and your leanest, you should aim for 7-9 hours of QUALITY sleep each and every night. If you sleep 8 hours, but you wake up every 2 hours, you’re not getting high quality sleep. This common disrupted sleep pattern shows up on the waist lines of so many people, even those who claim to “eat healthy”.
Lack of sleep can make you fat because how you sleep directly impacts how you eat, how much you eat, and what kinds of foods you want. In other words, whether you get a solid eight hours or a toss-and-turn six hours can determine whether you dive head first into a pint of ice cream or choose a piece of fruit for dessert. Even if you do opt for the healthier choice, sleep can determine whether you eat one reasonably sized portion or go back for several more. Healthy eating and eating for fat loss are not the same thing, this post explains the difference.
Sleep, like food, is information. Solid or substandard sleep signals your body to store fat or burn it for fuel because of its impact on several key hormones (more below, keep reading). Getting a quality 7-9 hours’ sleep supports better fat burning the following day, and it affects your appetite. If you find yourself wandering to the vending machine at 3 p.m. after you ate a substantial lunch, think about how (and how much) you slept the previous night.
Hormones play a huge role in appetite and cravings. Ghrelin, a hormone that tells your brain to eat now, increases when you sleep poorly. When you don’t sleep, you become more leptin (a hormone that helps control hunger and cravings) resistant. Have you ever noticed when you’re tired that you crave foods (usually sugar laden foods) that you normally don’t? And even though you’re not really hungry, you can’t resist the temptation? This is where leptin resistance becomes an issue. Insulin is also impacted by poor sleep, and chronically elevated insulin makes it difficult to burn fat for fuel.
Long-term sleep deprivation can make your cells insulin resistant, leading to higher fasting insulin levels. Besides impairing fat burning, these high levels may also put you at greater of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
Are you starting to see why fat loss and sleep are so intertwined?
A study at the University of Chicago, titled “Exposure to recurrent sleep restriction in the setting of high caloric intake and physical inactivity results in increased insulin resistance and reduced glucose tolerance,” concluded that even if you eat healthy and exercise, not getting the recommend 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night puts you at risk for obesity. In other words, poor sleep patterns can derail your best efforts to have the body you want.
Sleep needs to be consistent too. It’s easy to get caught up in a busy week and figure that catching up on your z’s over the weekend will be worth getting some extra work done or reading just one more chapter. It’s tempting, but sleep is like interest. It accrues over time, and once you’re behind, you catch up completely. Even one hour less sleep can trigger hormonal chaos. You eat more, move less, make terrible eating choices, and exacerbate stress levels…not exactly a situation that you can make up for with a few extra hours’ sleep over the weekend.
We Americans are more stressed out than ever, and while much of what stresses us out is out of hour hands, sleep quality is one thing we can control. When you are under stress, your body can secrete more cortisol and adrenaline. Higher cortisol levels make you better at storing fat and raise the set point for burning it off. High cortisol levels also impair digestion, and poor digestion leads to a whole new set of issues. Your cortisol levels remain high for longer periods when you get less-than-optimal sleep, and it’s easy to fall into this vicious cycle: high cortisol burns up your energy-assisting B vitamins, and you can’t make the neurotransmitters you need to sleep well. This Jeckyll-and-Hyde hormone also lowers levels of serotonin, the feel-good hormone your brain eventually converts to melatonin for good sleep.
How does this downward spiral play out? Well, you sleep terribly, so you hit the snooze button multiple times and skip your workout. You’re running way too late for work to make a shake for breakfast, so you hit Starbucks and grab a “low-fat” muffin (which is the same as eating sugar laden cupcake) and a latte for that caffeine pick-me-up. By mid-morning, you’re drowning in stress, dealing with a sugar crash, angry at everyone in sight, and finally say To hell with it and grab a doughnut a co-worker brought in.
If you want to live in a lean and fit body, you must prioritize your zzz’s. Sleep helps your body repair, rebuild, and recover from the strenuous effort you put in at the gym. Like vigorous exercise, sleep also increases growth hormone, or HGH. So let’s say you only got fours hours of sleep last night, and your plan is to hit the gym at 6am before work. You probably won’t be able to train with the intensity you would with substantial rest, particularly when you’re yawning and wondering when your coffee will kick in.
You also won’t recover as well from a tough workout when you don’t sleep well. Training (exercise) stimulates change in your body, rest and recovery time (including sleep) is when change (i.e. fat loss and/or muscle gain) occurs. If you don’t give your body what it needs to repair after training, your efforts in the gym won’t pay off, and you accelerate the aging process. It’s a lose-lose situation!
So there you have it. You need sleep. Easier said than done for sure, and of course I realize it can be difficult to unwind after a long and hectic day. I recommend finding a ritual that helps you relax, something like listening to music, reading, meditating, or a hot bath. Please don’t make too much alcohol part of your sleep ritual. A glass of wine at dinner will help you relax, but add in a nightcap or two and you will wake up dehydrated at 3 a.m.
To sum up: for faster fat loss, and for an overall happier life, make sleep a priority!