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Sleep more to lose weight

Darko Botic

How and why duration and quality of sleep affects obesity

In the next 12-15 minutes, you’ll read about basketball, how a horrible decision not to sleep affected me in a long run, some research stuff for the nerds, practical advice regarding sleep quality, and I mention sex at least once, so – stick around.


Firstly, learn from my mistakes

During the mid-90’s I fell in love with basketball, and a few years later I have discovered the NBA, where one of the first players that absolutely astonished me was Dennis Rodman. Rodman played for the Chicago Bulls at the time, and it’s important to mention this because it was almost impossible, at least for a kid, to be impressed by anybody else who didn’t wear the number 23 or anyone who wasn’t named Pippen. But I was absolutely mesmerized by Rodman. Not because of his extravagant (to say the least) persona, often flagrant behavior off the court, or unique style based on bizarre haircuts, tattoos, and piercings. But because of his energy and effort on the court. A few years later, I vaguely remember reading his interview somewhere in which he stated that he’d barely sleep, and he often pulled all-nighters during a season. Now I strongly doubt that, but at the time, it was such a revelation that I started sleeping less and less, while telling myself: “If one of the top athletes in the world, who’s bringing so much energy in every game, and who allegedly slept with over 2,000 women, could do this, it will have a zero negative effect on me.”

I practiced limited sleep up until my early 20’s. Usually, I would set an alarm clock to wake me up after 3-4 hours of sleep, which led to drinking few liters of coffee and energy drinks during a day, and into repeating the cycle. Usually once a week I would forget to set the alarm, and on those days I would wake up after 10-12 hours of undisturbed sleep. The difference in mental clarity and the mood was incomparable, but I still continued to restrict my sleep as long as possible, out of habit.

In February of 2010. my weight-loss journey started, and at that point, I weighed approximately 180 kg (~400 lbs). One of the first major changes that I made was replacing a bad habit of avoiding sleep, or what I considered as “time economy” at the time, and replaced it with a good one, which allowed me to sleep approximately 7-8 hours a day. Overall quality of my life, health, and mood dramatically improved almost instantly. Coincidence? Definitely not.


Extremely smart people in white coats confirmed this

In 2004. Hasler G. et al. conducted a study where they researched the hypothesis that short sleep duration is associated with obesity and weight gain. It was one of many major studies on this subject, where a semistructured interview was administered to 496 participants for psychiatric and medical evaluation. Results of the study confirmed the association between sleep deficiency and obesity. “Because sleep duration is a potentially modifiable risk factor, these findings might have important clinical implications for the prevention and treatment of obesity.” (1)

 In 2011. a comprehensive meta-analysis (a statistical summary of multiple studies) was done by Beccuti / Pannain, which showed that sleep loss results in metabolic and endocrine alterations, such as: decreased glucose tolerance, decreased insulin sensitivity, increased evening concentrations of cortisol, increased levels of ghrelin, and decreased levels of leptin. (2)

“Exercise can not only promote better sleep quality, but it can make you fall asleep faster. “

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Let’s try to put this in simpler terms.

Insulin plays a major role in the metabolism of macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein), and one of the main parts of that role is regulation of sugar level in blood. Insulin breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which body then uses as an energy source. So when sleep loss results in decrease in glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, it means that it can lead to high levels of blood sugar, and even insulin resistance (body produces insulin, but it doesn’t use it as effective as it should), which is basically one small step for mankind, but a big one towards diabetes.

Cortisol is a hormone that helps our bodies deal with stress. Increased concentrations of cortisol could result in the additional decrease in insulin’s role of transporting glucose into cells. In layman’s terms, this means more glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. Also, prolonged duration of elevated cortisol levels negatively affects our immune system, it increases high blood pressure, and it inhibits bone formation and muscle recovery. Take-home note here is to chill more.

Increased levels of ghrelin represent an increase in hunger. For example, ghrelin levels rise before a meal and decrease directly after.

On a similar note, decreased levels of leptin represent a decrease in the regulation of appetite.


So, yeah, let’s try to sleep a bit more

If you suffer from insomnia, or if you have any kind of medical condition that chronically affects your sleep, I advise you in all seriousness to stop reading this now and go book a meeting with your doctor.

For the rest of us, the problem of sleep loss could be approached in many beneficial ways, and some of them are as simple as making an adjustment to your habits. Below, I listed several of potential solutions, which could at the very least make you do the first step in the right direction. Before you start, be advised that this is not the ultimate guide to sleep, but merely a list of simple ways to improving it.

  • Go to the bed earlier, to allow yourself enough time to peacefully fall asleep and establish healthier and more consistent sleep pattern.
  • Increase your sleeping time in a manner of slower progression. You can do this in 1-hour, 30-minute, or even 15-minute increments every day, or even on weekly basis. Gradually going from 5 hours of sleep to 6, then to 7, and optimally to 8 and more, will have more positive effect on lowering your stress levels and improving the feeling of well-being than a 4-week vacation in Bali with a first class service.
  • Exercise can not only promote better sleep quality, but it can make you fall asleep faster. The only consideration here is to try not to incorporate your training session close to bedtime. It absolutely depends on a kind of exercising that you do, but the general effects of working out make you more excited and energized.
  • If possible, try to incorporate regular and consistent sleep-awake pattern. Go to bed every night, and wake up every morning at an approximately same time. The Same philosophy applies to night-shifters, but in a different time-frame. I guarantee you that reaping the benefits of a circadian rhythm is disproportionately more effective than any medicinal, fat-burning or “super-food” supplementation option that you considered an adequate alternative for rest.
  • Plus, getting used to waking up at the same time every single day, could likely mean winning a race against the alarm clock. Turning that sucker off before it even starts annoying you feels amazing, and it automatically gets you into a positive groove, which often leads to a good day. Strive to wake up naturally, and use the alarm as a precaution if your schedule demands waking up at a certain hour.
  • Turning off the TV and limiting exposure to blue lights to a minimum before going to bed will ensure the improvement of sleep quality. The reason is, your brain detects blue lighting basically as a daylight, which signals the “awake mode”. This is what impedes the levels of a hormone called melatonin, which is secreted in pineal gland part of the brain. You can think of melatonin as a ‘sleep hormone’ that sends signals to your body to switch to the “sleep mode”.
  • Also, consider using Windows, iOS or Android platforms with an addition of apps that imitates warming up of your displays and matching the indoor lightning. This is also a description of one of my favorite apps called f.lux.
  • If you enjoy taking naps during a day, try to limit their duration to 15-25 minutes, and also make a lengthier time period between a nap and a night time sleep.
  • Reading a book could be used as a very effective tactic to make yourself tired. Use this approach with this caveat: read something simple and boring. Or at least read bad fiction and novels, poetry, memoirs, anything that will not get you pumped, interested or intrigued. For example, a scientific research was done in 2015 on 3 million participants, which confirmed the thesis that reading only two pages of ’50 Shades of Grey’ resulted in an instant comatose-like sleep. Some of them are yet to wake up.
  • Speaking of 50 Shades of Grey, in all seriousness now, a (real) scientific study was done by Paul et al. in 2008, that examined the influence of sex on sleep regulatory mechanisms in humans. Evidence provided suggests that sex has specific hormonal responses. In women, elevation of estrogen and progesterone levels appears, which positively affects REM cycle (Rapid Eye Movement – a state of deep sleep). In men, androgens (men-making hormones) have a similar effect on REM cycle, but it could “disrupt sleep consolidation”. (3) However, sex largely decreases levels of cortisol and increases the release of hormone oxytocin synergistically. Oxytocin has a major role in our social bonding, and we already learned that cortisol promotes stress. All in all, positive effects of sex and feeling of relaxation afterward prevail over any possible scenario of disrupted sleep consolidation, which makes it, let’s be honest, an ideal tactic to knock yourself out to sleep.
  • Limit your caffeine intake during a day. At least avoid coffee, green teas, energy drinks or any supplement that has caffeine in it (such as pre-workout powders and pills) 6-8 hours before sleep.
  • Carbohydrates increase release of hormones serotonin and dopamine, which, in short lines, promote good mood, and positively affects sleep. Eating carbs before sleep can be beneficial, but be careful with the selection of carb sources – avoid larger quantities of sugar and sodas.
  • Take care of your sleep hygiene. Make an optimal atmosphere in the bedroom. Blocking the sunlight and making the room pitch dark, lowering the temperature, and soundproofing it as much as possible could do wonders for the quality of sleep. Use sleeping masks (especially if you suffer from sleep apnea), earplugs or any other kind of tactic that’s going to help you set the ideal atmosphere that prevents you from being distracted or abruptly awaken.
  • Make the bed as comfortable as possible. Making the bed every morning is the first thing I’m recommending here, because no matter how stressful your day was, it’s always comforting to know that everything in your bedroom is in a perfect order.
  • Also, if you don’t sleep alone, make sure to create as much room in the bed as possible for both of you.
  • You could also try with incorporating apps that play soothing sounds (just search “sleep” or “sleep aid” on your iPhones or Androids), that could put you in a peaceful, almost meditating mood.
  • Also, google search, or check Amazon, for white noise machines. These are the devices that don’t produce actual ‘white noise’, but rather sounds that imitate those of nature. This also promotes soothing and calming effects.
  • The fragrance of lavender calms the nerves, and for some folk, it can have a powerful positive response on sleep. Dropping a bit of lavender oil, or using lavender sprays on your pillow, is a definite recommendation.
  • Supplementing melatonin won’t make you fall asleep faster, but it can make a drastic difference in your sleep quality, and it also promotes regulation of circadian rhythm. This is also why melatonin helps with jet-lags. But be advised that in some countries (like Sweden, for instance) melatonin is considered as the prescription-based drug only. This means you cannot find in drug stores, and you could have problematic ramifications if you try to import it.
  • Lastly, I personally don’t consider sleeping pills to be the root of all evil, but I most certainly don’t recommend using them on regular basis. Anything that leads to addiction and feeling of hopelessness in its absence, needs to be approached with care and be used wisely. Use sleep medicine only after consulting with your doctor, but even before you contemplate this idea, I urge you to try every single approach I listed above.

A popular saying “Not seeing the forest for the trees” is perfectly appropriate in the cases of weight loss and fitness goals. I often witness people draining unreasonable amounts of money on supplements, spending hours upon hours on extra cardio sessions, going to extreme hypocaloric diets, and stressing over failed attempts to discover a shortcut to success. However, in the meantime, neglecting the simplest, cheapest and most obvious of solutions.

Shave your stress off with the Occam’s razor – start sleeping more.


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