Sleep and weight loss: quality Zs for maximum fat-burning


Nagina Abdullah


November 5, 2018

sleep and weight loss

Losing weight is not ALL about the food you eat. Sleep and weight loss are closely linked. How much sleep you get, and the quality of that sleep has a big impact on your body’s ability to lose or maintain weight. The question is how to sleep better at night naturally.

I had an online weight loss coaching client who used to pride herself on only needing five hours of sleep a night. She worked in a high-stakes job with long hours and often worked late into the night. Then she got up early for her commute into the city.

In her 20s, she managed to do all this AND go out drinking on Friday (sometimes even Thursday) nights. As she got older, she noticed she wasn’t bouncing back as quickly from too little or poor quality sleep. She was beginning to suspect the sleep and weight loss connection and cut back on going to bars. But even when she was home at a decent hour, she had trouble winding down at night.

Sometimes, she would lie in bed tossing and turning until 1 or 2 a.m. She just couldn’t fall asleep. It was tempting to fall back on things like sleep-aids or alcohol. However, she always noticed that the quality of her sleep wasn’t as good with these as when it was natural.

sleep and weight loss
Do you want to “sleep yourself skinny?” Keep reading for why sleep is a major driver for weight-loss and how to get better sleep

In particular, when she took sleeping pills she felt groggy the next morning. On the other hand, when she had a glass of wine, she fell asleep quicker, but usually woke up at 3 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep.

Even though she was making time to exercise, she was steadily gaining weight. Was it stress? Hormones? Snacking on sugary treats more than she liked to admit? Yes! And a lot of this was tied back to not setting herself up for quality sleep and weight loss.

Basically, if you want to lose weight and be productive at work, you really have to get good sleep – both quality and quantity.

In this post, I’ll talk about these aspects of sleep and weight loss and how to sleep better at night naturally. Here are the topics I’ll cover:

  • Why good quality sleep and weight loss are best friends
  • Why waking up in the middle of the night is so bad for fat burning
  • How poor quality sleep suppresses hormones that slow aging
  • How poor sleep can make fat cells “groggy” and slow the burning of extra fat
  • What you should do in the evening (and day) to sleep better

Hormones, sleep and weight loss

Well-established contributors to a healthy weight are eating a healthy diet full of anti-inflammatory foods, moving your body with regular exercise, managing stress, and getting enough good quality sleep. (1)

While these are all vitally important parts of weight loss, sleep is the one that can affect every other area. This is because not getting enough good quality sleep can throw your whole internal system off kilter. It changes the release of certain hormones regulating your hunger and causes you to crave high-calorie, high-simple-carb foods. (1)

Not getting a full night of sleep for two nights in a row causes leptin, the hormone that tells your body you’re full, to drop 18%. It also causes ghrelin, the hunger hormone, to rise 28% (1)

Since weight loss is 80% what you eat, it’s clear that managing your food intake is key. You need a good balance of leptin and ghrelin for that, which is basically impossible if you’re not getting good quality natural sleep. (2,3)

Lack of good sleep makes you more irritable and increases the stress hormone cortisol. More on that later. It also makes exercise harder because you’re exhausted, and because it reduces the hormones that help you build lean muscle. I’ll expand on this in a section below, too. 

In addition to throwing off your hunger signals, being overly tired also increases activity in the amygdala, which is the part of your brain that craves reward. (2) With all these factors weighing against you, you’re quite literally not thinking clearly. You’re being bombarded by chemicals and brain signals telling you all the wrong things for weight loss. (2,3,4) Sleep and weight loss are everything!

Sleep and weight loss: better quality sleep for healthy weight

You might know that when you’re not rested, you feel groggy and sluggish. But did you know your fat cells feel that way, too?!

Without enough quality sleep, your fat cells suffer from “metabolic grogginess.” This means they don’t respond to insulin the way they should. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that just four days of sub-par sleep, insulin sensitivity drops 30%! (2,3,4)

Insulin working as it should helps prevent fat storage. But with metabolic grogginess, lipids (fats) circulate in your blood and pump out more insulin. Eventually, the extra insulin stores fat on your body and around internal organs. This is how lower insulin sensitivity can lead to weight gain and diabetes. (2)

How many hours of sleep do you need? What does quality sleep mean?

  • Getting enough quality sleep, 7 to 9 hours for adults,  has an effect on every cell of your body.
  • Your body and brain need between 3 to 5 REM and deep or slow wave cycles sleep each night. (5)

If you wake up in the middle of the night because you drank alcohol or because your mind starts racing, you’re cutting your body and brain short by interrupting these important rest and repair phases.

Sleep and weight loss with your muscles

Recently, I slept on an air mattress for several days while having guests at our home. One morning, I went to do a gym workout like I usually do, and I found that I could lift significantly less weight. For example, if I lifted 20 pounds over my head before, I could only do 15. My personal trainer and I noticed how different my performance was, and we realized how important sleep – the QUALITY of it as well as the quantity – was to getting a good workout.

It’s not just a mental battle you’re up against without good sleep. Sleep and weight loss can be tied to your muscle density. Scientists in Brazil found that poor sleep decreases your body’s ability to make muscle and even causes muscle loss. This can lead to injuries and makes it harder to recover from exercise. Plus, building lean muscle helps your body focus on burning extra fat stores.

This is caused by the slowed production of a growth hormone that also works as a natural anti-aging and fat burning agent in your body. Poor sleep reduces slow wave sleep, which is when this growth hormone is released the most. Not getting good quality sleep also boosts the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone that slows the growth hormone production even more.  (2)

sleep and weight loss
Cortisol also collects fat around the midsection. Learn how to burn belly fat fast!

Tips to get better quality sleep and watch the pounds slide off

Here are some habits to set yourself up for a good, restful night of sleep.

If you have trouble falling asleep in the first place

  • Stop drinking caffeine after 12 noon. (1)
  • Turn off all screens – phones, tablets, laptops, and TV – at least an hour or two before bed

If you fall asleep, but wake up a few hours later

  • Try giving up alcohol for a few days
  • Journal right before bed to get to-dos and anxieties out of your brain and onto paper. It will help your mind release them and rest until morning. (1)

If you wake up in the middle of the night to pee

  • Don’t drink water 2 hours before bed (1)

Other things to get the best rest and close the loop between sleep and weight loss:

  • Buy new pillows
  • Invest in a white noise machine
  • Flip your mattress over or invest in a better mattress
  • Get snore strips (either for yourself or your partner) (1)

Have you noticed how hard it is to control your cravings when you haven’t had enough quality sleep? What tricks or habits have you developed that help you sleep better and more soundly?

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Nagina Sethi Abdullah, BA, MBA

Nagina Abdullah is a health coach for middle-aged women and professionals. She coaches women to boost their metabolism naturally, shed pounds and keep them off. Her work with weight loss clients led to the creation of Masala Body, an online weight loss platform that provides an easy and accessible system that helps women sustainably lose weight. She has helped over 1200 women successfully lose from 10-80 lbs and create a sustainable lifestyle change. Nagina earned her degree in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley.

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