Can’t lose weight? Research says bad sleep is to blame

You work hard to lose weight. You eat all your fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of water and crush a workout several times per week. Heck, maybe you even track your macros, count your calories or have a full-on food journal. And of course you keep a close eye on your daily step count and log your workouts.

So why — cue frustrated hand gestures — can’t you lose weight?

If you’re doing all of the above, you probably already know that weight loss is a long, windy, nuanced process. You can’t avoid the ups and downs and you have to keep chugging along despite bad days.

But… when you have everything so dialed in, so meticulously planned, it can feel like a strong slap in the face when your body doesn’t budge. You might be missing one big piece of the puzzle. You might not even know this piece exists; it’s an often overlooked aspect of weight loss.

The big missing piece? Precious sleep .

How sleep deprivation wrecks weight loss efforts

Despite doing everything right with diet and exercise, you could easily derail your efforts with a crappy sleep schedule. Think of weight loss as a pyramid. Sleep is the bottom layer. Then comes nutrition and hydration, then exercise. At the top, you have things like food tracking, step counting and supplementing.

Sleep deprivation ruins your weight loss efforts in four big ways, explained below.

Hunger hormone imbalances

Two of your major hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, get all wacky when you deprive yourself of sleep. Ghrelin stimulates your appetite while leptin decreases it.

When you don’t get enough sleep, ghrelin spikes and leptin lays low. The result? Your appetite goes through the roof and leptin isn’t there to say, “Hey, we’re not hungry.”

What’s really scary is that this can happen after just one night of reduced sleep.
Poor food choices

Think about the kinds of food you want to eat when you’re tired. If you’re like most people, you probably gravitate toward something sugary and high in refined carbohydrates or something greasy, fatty and delicious.

Researchers actually uncovered this trend in studies and the science is clear: When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to make poor food choices. Scientists don’t yet understand all of the biological mechanisms behind this, but think it may happen due to reward circuits in your brain.

Less effective workouts

You may not get the most out of your workouts when you’re sleep-deprived. Studies show that exercise feels harder after a night of no rest and that sluggish feeling means you might not move as fast, lift as heavy or workout for as long.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because there’s no need to go hard at the gym when you don’t get enough sleep. But it’s something to keep in mind when you can’t help but wonder why your workouts aren’t working.
Stress and inflammation

If I had to guess, you’re probably pretty stressed out already. Balancing work, family and household duties during a pandemic while trying to stay in shape is — and this is a gross understatement — a challenge.

Most people don’t realize this (thanks to the “no excuses” fitness culture), but doing intense workouts when you’re already overly stressed isn’t always a good idea. High-intensity workouts trigger your body’s stress response and if you don’t get enough sleep, your body won’t recover well. This chronic elevation of stress hormones can stunt your weight loss efforts.

How to lose weight when you don’t get enough sleep

The best course of action is to try to get more sleep, because not only will more sleep help with weight loss, but it’ll positively impact other areas of life, too. More sleep just isn’t in the cards for many people, however.

Here are a few ways to aid your weight loss efforts even when you can’t clock eight hours each night:

  • If you already eat a healthy diet and drink enough water, keep those habits going strong.
  • If you struggle with food cravings, consider modifying your home environment (e.g., buy more whole foods and fewer highly palatable foods).
  • Cut down on meal preparation time by buying frozen or canned produce (it’s still healthy).
  • Sneak in power naps if and when you can.
  • Instead of HIIT or heavy weightlifting, try gentler movement, like walking or yoga, to keep your physical stress levels down.
  • Try exercise “snacks” (very short bursts of intense movement, like 20 quick jumping jacks) throughout the day if you don’t have time for a full workout.
  • Consider making at-home workouts a family activity. It’s fun when the whole family partakes, and this can help keep the household on a healthy sleep schedule.
  • Take stress management seriously and identify tools and techniques that can help you keep stress at bay.
  • Take a look at your schedule and identify any areas where you can become more efficient, saving a few precious moments that can be used for more sleep (e.g., preparing breakfast like overnight oats).

Finally, if it’s not your schedule that’s the problem — you spend enough hours in bed but just can’t sleep — you may want to talk to your doctor about sleep deprivation, potential underlying conditions and treatment options.

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