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Decoding the role of sleep in weight loss maintenance

Multiple studies have found that there's a direct link between poor quality of sleep and weight gain

Sleep affects our weight through changes in eating patterns (Unsplash/Milan Gaziev)

By Shrenik Avlani

LAST PUBLISHED 15.01.2024  |  08:00 AM IST

I have had trouble sleeping last night and barely managed to get in four hours of restless shut-eye. Compounding the problem are the Christmas and New Year’s Eve excesses, and the fact that I am on the road and haven’t worked out even once this year. Doctors, fitness coaches and multiple peer reviewed studies point out that all of this is bad news for me. It is common knowledge that excessive consumption of food and drinks and being inactive are neither good for your health or fitness. But what might catch you by surprise is the fact that sleep deficiency can lead to weight gain.

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I have no medical conditions, am fairly active despite the recent track record and do not binge eat, so I am not going to set myself any weight-related goals as they tend to cause more harm than good. But if you are among the millions who need to lose weight because of health and medical reasons, your lack of sleep should worry you. 

“Chronic sleep deprivation has a significant impact on weight. It can result in weight gain and make it difficult to lose weight," warns 
Dr. Aparna Ramakrishnan, consultant for psychiatry at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai. 

A study published last May in the journal Sleep explored the role of sleep in weight loss maintenance. The researchers observed for one year 195 adults who had lost 13.1kg through a diet-induced weight loss method. Over the course of the year, participants with short sleep duration at randomisation regained 5.3 kg body weight and had less reduction in body fat percentage compared to participants with normal sleep duration. Those who suffered from poor sleep quality before the weight loss regained 3.5 kg body weight compared with good quality sleepers. The study conclusively found that both insufficient and poor sleep quality led to weight gain after weight loss in adults with obesity.

It's not only people with obesity who should be worried if they aren’t sleeping well or enough, even lean and fit people need to heed caution if they have been consistently plagued by sleep troubles. Another study titled, Insufficient Sleep and Obesity: Cause or Consequence, published in the research journal Obesity in 2022 found that acute insufficient sleep combined with unrestricted access to food leads to people eating more and a consequent increase in body weight in people who are lean. The researchers, however, noted that further studies were required to evaluate the effect of longer duration sleep deficiency and poor sleep quality on body composition. 

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The relationship between sleep and weight gain is complex and influenced by various factors, explains Abraar Khan Waryah, coach and co-founder of Grid Iron Fitness Centre in Kolkata. 

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“Sleep affects our hormonal regulation, caloric intake, metabolic changes and energy expenditure. Lack of sleep can disrupt the balance of hormones that regulate our hunger and appetite. The hormone ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, tends to increase with sleep deprivation. On the other hand, leptin, the hormone that signals we have consumed enough food, decreases. Sleep deficiency can also affect glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, potentially leading to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. These metabolic changes may contribute to weight gain over time. Above all, chronic lack of sleep could reduce our energy expenditure during both rest and physical activity, potentially contributing to weight gain," Waryah says.

Dr. Shambhavi Jaiman, consultant psychiatrist at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram, further notes that sleep plays a significant role in our weight regulation. Sleep affects weight through changes in eating patterns and sleep deprivation can lead to a craving for certain high calorie foods especially from high-fat and carbohydrate-rich foods.

Apart from a direct impact on weight, hormones and appetite, lack of sleep results in mood fluctuations with increased levels of anxiety, stress, depressive symptoms and emotional eating as a way to cope with them, explains Ramakrishnan. “Chronic sleep deprivation slows our metabolism making it difficult to lose weight. Fatigue and low energy levels due to lack of sleep result in decreased motivation and ability to indulge in exercise and physical activity. This results in a sedentary lifestyle increasing the propensity to gain weight," she says.

So, if weight is a serious health or medical issue for you, the first thing you need to do is get enough sleep. In order to make sure you are getting enough and good quality sleep, you need to adopt some sleep hygiene strategies. 

Gagan Arora, coach and founder of Kosmic Fitness in New Delhi, suggests setting a sleep alarm instead of a wake-up alarm and going to bed every night, including weekends, at the same hour till your body gets used to the new schedule. It is possible to address some of your sleep deficit by getting some extra sleep on the weekends and power naps during the day, say experts. Avoid caffeinated drinks after 4pm and create an ambient environment for sleep by getting the room temperature right and the lights dim. Above all, do not take your phone, tablet or laptop to bed. They are the worst impediments to proper sleep in modern times.

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