Can sleep really help with fat loss?

I don't fall into the category of people who rise and grind. Unless we're talking about coffee beans. I rise and grind my coffee beans. 

Actually, I program the coffee maker the night before, because it’s a bad idea for me to operate machinery first thing in the morning, heavy or otherwise. A Starbucks barista once advised me, when I I arrived at 6:00 a.m. for my coffee, to drink it before driving my car.

I’ve never slept particularly well and I’ve NEVER been a morning person.

You'll notice my cleverness with headlines has not improved. This article was about, yes, you guessed it; morning people. So witty.

You'll notice my cleverness with headlines has not improved. This article was about, yes, you guessed it; morning people. So witty.

On the first day of a new job a few years ago a co-worker said, "One of your references said your only weakness was mornings."

In fact, in that picture off to the right, I wrote a newspaper column (Job no. 4) about how much I disliked morning people. Those perky, chipper, "the day's a-wasting" folks who can get up at 5:00 a.m. and not only remember to use shampoo and soap in the shower, but actually do things like...I don't know...write books and work out.

These people often say things like "I do more before you get out of bed then you'll do all day." And, "I'll sleep when I'm dead."

Good for you for not punching these people.

In the article, I rail against these people (this was 15 years ago), but what I was also saying was...I can't sleep. I can't fall asleep, I can't stay asleep and so when morning comes around I've got nothing in the tank to start the day.

At 23 years old, I could get away with not sleeping. Now? Well, not so much.

Because I struggle so much with sleep, I’m drawn to most any kind of article that provides insight into my struggles with Mr. Sandman. This post, from the CEO of Athletic Greens, really got my attention. Because in it, he links a lack of sleep to belly fat.


Yes, there is a scientific link to a lack of sleep AND chronically elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and fat around your mid-section.

So many of us go through great care to eat well and exercise often, and find ourselves unable to drop inches from our middle. As it turns out, sleep, and specifically quality sleep, might be the missing element. If you’re burning both ends of the candle it won’t matter if your diet and exercise are on point. 

You'll still carry excess abdominal fat.

According to a Nurses’ Health Study, researchers followed roughly 60,000 women for 16 years, asking them about their weight, sleep habits, diet, and other aspects of their lifestyle. At the start of the study, all of the women were healthy, and none were obese; 16 years later, women who slept 5 hours or less per night had a 15 percent higher risk of becoming obese, compared to women who slept 7 hours per night. Short sleepers also had 30 percent higher risk of gaining 30 pounds over the course of the study, compared to women who got 7 hours of sleep per night.

So now, when someone comes to me and says that they are working out six times a week, and watching everything they eat, my first question is how is your sleep? How much do you sleep?

Sleep and hormones

When we don’t get enough sleep, our hormones are thrown completely off kilter. And we all know we need to be on kilter. Kilter is where it’s at.

The hormones ghrelin and leptin both influence your appetite. Ghrelin, know as the hunger hormone, stimulates appetite; the higher the ghrelin level, the hungrier you feel. I call this the gremlin hormone because I’m terrible with pronunciation. 

Leptin affects your appetite in the opposite way, letting you know when your stomach is full. So normal leptin levels regulates those gremlins, keeping your hunger in check. But a lack of sleep can cause your leptin levels to lower and your gremlin levels to rise. 

I would also offer that on those nights when I sleep three hours, and those have been happening a lot lately, I’m too tired to actually care what I’m eating. That lack of sleep impacts my decision making process when it’s time to feed the inner gremlin. 

I don’t want a hard boiled egg when I’m tired. I want Doritoes. All of them. In my face. 

Studies have shown that just a week of sleep deprivation can cause significant alterations in glucose tolerance (i.e. how readily your body's cells can recognize glucose floating around in your blood and pull it into the cells of the body where it will fuel activity.) Impaired glucose tolerance can make you more likely to develop diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

There's also evidence that a lack of sleep can turn you into a raging b**ch. True story. 

Probably half of the clients I work with will point to a couple of areas in particular where they want to lose weight, (though there is no such thing as spot removal when it comes to fat.*) But for many people, abdominal fat is a target area. 

Sleep and cortisol levels

As a side note, in doing my research I discovered that elephants only require three hours of sleep. In case that comes up in trivia next week.

Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. So way back in the day when you were being chased by a saber toothed tiger, you had mad levels of cortisol going on. And it helped you survive. Cortisol also cues your body to hold on to fat. So what we're getting at here is lack of sleep = increased cortisol levels = increased abdominal fat.

During a typical day, you want your cortisol levels to be higher in the morning, so you can brush your teeth with toothpaste and not hemorrhoid cream, and lower at night, so you can fall asleep. Have you ever tried to shut your racing mind off at night? You're mind is going in all different directions and so you try to not think about this, and then not think about that. 

And all of these things are only the tip of the iceberg. 

Check in for the next post on strategies to maybe, just maybe, help you sleep better and longer. 



* I alluded to the thigh master in one of my recent posts - if you recall there was a photo of Suzanne Somers; but you can't actually spot remove fat.