How sleep affects weight gain

It feels good to get enough sleep. Not only does sleep put you in a better mood, but a healthy amount of sleep keeps your brain and body functioning at their best.

Sleep and weight: what’s the connection?

When people don’t get enough sleep, their metabolisms change in ways that make it more likely for them to overeat and indulge in unhealthy foods. Studies from journals including Sleep Medicine, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the American Journal of Epidemiology have found that after a night of little sleep, your appetite is directly affected in the following ways.

  • Your hunger hormones change: Leptin and ghrelin are two hormones that affect appetite regulation. Leptin helps you feel full, and ghrelin helps you feel hunger. When a person doesn’t get enough sleep, their body releases less leptin and more ghrelin, which makes them crave unnecessary and usually unhealthy calories.
  • You crave higher-calorie, carb-heavy foods: Studies that track the types of food sleep-deprived people eat have found that when you don’t get enough sleep, you eat differently the next day. Specifically, you’re more likely to engage in ‘pleasurable eating habits’, meaning that you eat foods that are more calorie-dense and high in carbohydrates.
  • You eat more snacks in between meals: Compared to people who were getting a healthy amount of sleep, study participants whose sleep was restricted tended to snack more frequently in between meals the days that they were sleep-deprived. These snacks tended to be unhealthy and high in calories. 

Conditions that affect sleep

There are a few reasons you might not be getting enough sleep. You might choose to stay up late instead of going to bed. You could also be suffering from a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders affect millions of people every night, and if you think you have one, it’s important to seek treatment so that you can start getting the right amount of sleep at night.

Here are some of the most common sleep disorders that people experience.

  • Sleep apnea: This is an extreme form of snoring in which a sleeping person’s throat muscles relax when they breathe. Their airway becomes blocked and they wake up, sometimes hundreds of times in a night. People with sleep apnea often don’t have any memory of waking up at night, but this does cause them to lose a lot of sleep and be tired throughout the day. Obesity, jaw size, overbite, and drinking before bed are some of the biggest risk factors for sleep apnea. Treatment ranges from weight loss if a person is obese to a device to keep the airway open to special dental devices.
  • Insomnia: The most common signs of insomnia are difficulty falling asleep and trouble staying asleep. Insomnia can be a result of stress or psychiatric conditions like depression, or it can happen if someone has drunk caffeine or alcohol before trying to go to sleep. Certain medications and medical conditions can cause insomnia, too. Insomnia is usually treated by lifestyle changes, behavioral changes that include better bedtime habits, cognitive behavioral therapy to improve one’s thoughts about sleeping, meditation, hypnotics, and medications like antidepressants. 
  • Parasomnia: Examples of parasomnias include sleepwalking, night terrors, which are like nightmares but much more frightening and intense, and sleep-eating disorders, which cause people to eat while they are asleep. Parasomnias can happen as a result of stress, anxiety, alcohol, and epilepsy. Treatment includes medication, relaxation techniques, and creating a safe home environment in case a person poses a threat to themselves at night.
  • Periodic Limb Movements of Sleep (PLMS): This condition more commonly affects people who are over the age of 60, but it can also happen as a result of certain medical conditions. It causes people’s legs to move, kick, and jerk while they are asleep, which can wake them up in the same way sleep apnea does. People who have restless leg syndrome usually experience PLMS. PLMS is treated with medication or sleeping pills.

Signs you could have a sleeping disorder

If you think you could have a sleep disorder, you should let your provider know, right away. You might have a sleep disorder if you notice any of the following symptoms.

  • Constant tiredness: You feel like you are always tired, and could fall asleep while doing things like driving, talking, or doing tasks
  • Brain fog: You have difficulty making decisions and remembering things
  • Mood problems: You feel especially angry, flat, or depressed for no reason
  • Sleeping trouble: You have difficulty falling asleep, or having difficulty staying asleep when you wake up at night or in the morning
  • Very loud snoring: If you snore loudly at night, or if you find yourself waking up at night with a choke sound, you could have a sleep disorder

Tips to get more sleep

If you think your sleeping issue is related to your habits or lifestyle, there are a few things you can do that might help you fall and stay asleep.

First, get regular, moderate-intensity exercise every day; this can help make you sleepier so that you don’t stay awake at night. Remove distracting things like a TV or laptop from your bedroom, and try to make the space feel more calm, perhaps by changing your lightbulbs to dimmer, warmer lights or by adding a soft blanket or rug. Don’t relax in your bed; make a conscious effort to sit or lounge in other parts of the house. Set more consistent bedtimes by setting a sleep alarm. Finally, refrain from exercise, eating, napping, or drinking caffeine or alcohol in the four hours before it’s time to go to bed.

If you try all of these things and still have a hard time falling or staying asleep, talk to your healthcare provider. They can assess the problem and potentially refer you to a sleep specialist who can determine whether or not you have a sleep disorder, and then help you treat your sleeping problems.

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  • S Taheri, et al. “Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index.” PLoS Med. 1(3):e62. Web. Dec 2004. 
  • SR Patel, et al. “Association between reduced sleep and weight gain in women.” Am J Epidemiol. 164(10):947-54. Web. Aug 2006. 
  • K Spiegel, et al. “Brief communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite.” Ann Intern Med. 141(11):846-50. Web. Dec 2004. 
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  • “What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Problem Sleepiness?” NHLBI. NIH, HHS, Jun 2017. Web. Accessed 8/8/17. Available at 
  • “Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep.” Division of Sleep Medicine at
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