5 Ways Sleeping Less Makes You Gain Weight

PHOTO: Insufficient sleep is linked to obesity and a host of other maladies.
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If you're what researchers call a short sleeper (measured by how long you sleep each night—5.5 to 6 hours or less qualifies you), you'll have trouble losing weight, no doubt about it. In a 7-year study of 7,022 middle-aged people, Finnish researchers found that women who reported sleep problems were more likely to experience a major weight gain (defined as 11 pounds or more).

You know that sleep and weight gain may be linked, but why is that? Here's what the earth-shattering new research has revealed, and why lack of sleep could be stalling your ability to lose weight and keep it off:

Sleep Less, Burn Less

In a study at the department of neuroendocrinology at the University of Lübeck, Germany, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers had a group of men sleep for 12 hours a night but didn't allow them to sleep the next night, and then had them eat an opulent buffet the following morning. Then the researchers measured the subjects' energy expenditure—the calories you burn just by being. When the men were sleep-deprived, their general energy expenditure was 5 percent less than it was when they got a good night's sleep, and their post-meal energy expenditure was 20 percent less.

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Sleep Less, Eat More

In research presented at the American Heart Association's 2011 Scientific Sessions, it was shown that women who got only 4 hours of sleep at night ate 329 additional calories the next day than they did after they slept 9 hours. (Men ate 263 calories more.) In another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 11 volunteers spent 14 days at a sleep center on two occasions. During one period, they slept 5.5 hours a night, and during the other, they slept 8.5 hours. When the subjects were sleep-deprived, they increased their nighttime snacking and were more likely to choose high-carbohydrate snacks.

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Sleep Less, Crave More

This is probably the biggest revelation about the connection between sleep and weight loss—and the biggest challenge for you if you're not getting at least 7 solid hours of sleep each night. Sleeping too little impacts your hormone levels in ways that can undermine the efforts of even the most determined dieter. That's because insufficient sleep raises the levels of ghrelin, the hormone that tells you to eat. When it comes to weight gain and loss, this hormone plays a leading role.

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Ghrelin's job is to boost your appetite, increase fat production, and make your body grow—all of which are fine things if you're a lanky 12-year-old. But once you're in your thirties, ghrelin's effects can seem pretty darned undesirable. It's a cinch to figure out why this hormone is the last thing a dieter needs to have circulating in excess.

Lack of sleep also lowers levels of leptin, the hormone that says, "I'm full; put the fork down." Leptin's levels run high during the night, which tells your body while you're sleeping that you don't need to eat. Its levels drop during the day, when you need food as energy. So high leptin levels keep hunger at bay. In studies, for example, mice lost weight because leptin made them eat less and exercise more: the holy grail of dieting. But if you don't get enough sleep, your leptin levels plummet.

So after even one night of too little sleep, leptin and ghrelin become dietary gremlins bent on diet-wrecking mischief. The lower leptin levels mean that you still feel hungry after you eat. And ghrelin, for its part, magnifies the problem by stimulating your appetite, setting the stage for a day of unsatisfying, high-cal feasting after a restless night.

In the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study of more than 1,000 people, researchers found that people who got 5 hours of sleep a night had 15.5 percent lower leptin levels and 14.9 percent higher levels of ghrelin, compared with those who got 8 hours of sleep. Know what else the nonsleepers scored higher numbers in? BMI. So more ghrelin plus less leptin equals greater body mass index and weight gain.

In a study at the University of Chicago, researchers discovered that restricting the sleep of 12 healthy young men to 4 hours a night lowered their leptin levels by 18 percent. The men rated themselves as having a 24 percent increase in hunger.

Sleep Less, Hang On to Fat More

Lack of sleep may also affect the kind of weight you lose. In another study at the University of Chicago, researchers followed 10 overweight but healthy subjects who were placed on a balanced diet, then observed in two 14-day increments, one in which they got about 7.5 hours of sleep, and another in which they got 5 hours and 15 minutes.

During both periods, the subjects lost an average of 6.6 pounds. But when they got more sleep, they lost 3.1 pounds of fat, whereas during the short-sleep period, they lost only 1.3 pounds of fat. Those who got more sleep reported less hunger, which makes sense: When they got enough sleep, their ghrelin levels stayed the same. On the 5-hour nights, their ghrelin levels rose by 9 points.

Since ghrelin also promotes the retention of fat, researchers theorize that a lack of sleep explains why the nonsleepers held on to body fat. This happens because the diet-unfriendly hormone reduces the number of calories you burn off and increases glucose production.

Sleep Less, Have More Time to Eat

It hasn't been scientifically proven, but some experts believe that the 2 hours or more that we're no longer using to sleep is giving us another 2 hours to raid the fridge.

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More from Prevention:

Sleep Myths

Expert Sleeping Advice

20 Ways To Sleep Better Every Night

Top 10 Sleep Thieves

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