I'll Sleep When I'm Dead...

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

Movie… song… cool phrase…

Ignored, neglected and almost always taken for granted, sleep is your secret weapon when it comes to losing unwanted pounds. It’s easy to do, doesn’t require anything more than planning and discipline and has positive effects on so many areas of your life.

Short story: if you’re trying to lose weight, making sure you’re getting adequate sleep is one of the easiest and most effective ways to lower stress, control your appetite and keep the hormones controlling hunger and satiety on an even keel.

A lack of sleep leads to increased stress. Piled on top of the normal stress of life the tendency to eat, especially “comfort” foods, goes through the roof. And it’s when you’re under constant stress that the problems start.

In our experience, high stress and low sleep frequently leads to a positive feedback loop that looks like this: you’re tired and stressed, you eat comfort foods… and you eat them in excess. You’re trying to slim down, you know you didn’t stick to your eating plan, you feel guilty and the stress goes up another notch.

So you “feed your stress” and the entire cycle starts over.

Think back on your own experiences: in times you’ve been highly stressed have you craved fresh steamed vegetables or a kale smoothie?

Yeah, me neither.

Most of the time, this is where it comes undone. You eat a cookie or a piece of chocolate and before you know it, the entire box is gone. Then you think, “I’ll just make this a cheat day and get back on it tomorrow.”

Three weeks later… you know what I mean.

We talk a lot about the importance of working out and eating correctly to reaching our goals and staying there. But they’re only two of five things, working together, critical to our success.

The 5 Pillars of Fitness

  1. The correct workout program.

  2. Proper nutrition.

  3. Recovery. (Sleep is here.)

  4. Hydration.

  5. Stress management. (Sleep is here, too.)

No matter your fitness goals sleep is important. But let’s look at it in terms of weight loss since most clients start there.

First and foremost, anyone attempting to lose weight (fat) must be in a calorie deficit. (You must burn more calories than you consume.) And you must maintain that calorie deficit for as long as it takes to reach your goal weight and body composition.

There’s just no way around it.

Maintaining that deficit is usually where people stumble. It takes consistency over a period of time and that’s the hard part. There are times you’re going to be hungry, you’ll crave certain foods and that alone can be stressful. As you saw above, stress is one of the Five Pillars. Together with sleep, it affects hormone balance.

Fortunately, we can make a big impact on both stress and hormone balance by getting plenty of sleep.

There are three hormones related to weight loss affected by stress and lack of sleep. When they’re out of balance they drive us to act irrationally when it comes to food and it undermines our progress. Being well rested is one of the best ways to keep them in check and help maintain the calorie deficit we need in order to reach our goal weight and body composition.

The three hormones directly related to appetite and its control and weight gain due to stress are: cortisol, leptin and ghrelin.

Ghrelin is often termed the “hunger hormone” because it lets us know when it’s time to eat. Researchers have noted an increase in ghrelin prior to mealtimes or when fasting. Our bodies are pretty good at knowing what time we usually eat. Have you ever wondered why you’re always hungry around lunchtime every day? Or, if you normally eat breakfast at 8:00 a.m. and you sleep late one day you’re starving when you wake up? That’s your body using ghrelin to let you know you’ve missed a meal.

Ghrelin’s antagonist, leptin, acts in opposition to ghrelin by inhibiting hunger. Leptin is produced in our fat cells and its primary function is the regulation of those same fat stores. It plays a key role in helping our bodies efficiently convert the energy from food into body fat and, when needed, converting that stored fat back into energy the body can use.

The amount of leptin circulating in your blood is directly proportional to the amount of body fat you carry. This makes sense because, if you have more fat, your body knows it’s already carrying an ample supply of energy. To make matters worse, in cases of obesity, leptin resistance is quite common. In other words, your brain ignores the message that you don’t need any more energy (food) and you continue eating, leading to further increases in weight and body fat.

The last of the three, cortisol, along with adrenaline, is part of our fight-or-flight response system. It plays a huge role in how our body’s use carbs, fats and proteins, helps regulate blood sugar, increases or decreases appetite and also plays a part in controlling our sleep cycle.

It’s our body’s main stress hormone.

When you’re in a high stress situation, cortisol is there to quickly shut down or start up bodily systems. It releases energy stored in your cells to help you deal with the crisis. When the crisis passes, your body’s systems return to normal.

But when you’re in prolonged high stress situations, which seem normal today, it leads to a significant increase in appetite.

If you’ve heard anything about cortisol it was probably when you saw a commercial selling a cortisol suppressant that promised to reduce the fat around your middle. Although the effectiveness of cortisol suppressants has been thoroughly debunked, cortisol can impact weight gain.

Let’s look at a common scenario.

You have stress in your life and lack of sleep only leads to more of it. The result is elevated levels of cortisol which, in turn, leads to increased appetite and ghrelin – the hormone your body uses to tell you to eat. The end result is you’re hungry – and your stress has primed you to eat something you think will make it all go away.

The good news is research has shown a definite correlation between adequate sleep and, a) lower cortisol and ghrelin levels and, b) increased leptin levels. So, if we make sure we’re getting enough quality sleep, we can keep these hormones at levels that help us maintain the calorie deficit required to reach our weight loss goals.

An ongoing sleep study conducted in Wisconsin over a 15-year period has shown people who sleep less, on average, tend to be heavier. But looking deeper, the study shows a direct correlation between decreased levels of sleep and increases in levels of ghrelin along with decreases in leptin. Deeper still, cutting sleep from 8-hours to 5-hours per night led to increases in ghrelin and decreases in leptin of around 15% each.

The upshot: less sleep leads to an increase in the “hunger hormone” and a decrease in the hormone telling your body to stop eating. That’s enough to tell us increasing our sleep should help control hunger and keep us on track towards our goal.

Several studies have shown a decrease in sleep produces marked increases in cortisol the following evening. This is a time when the body normally tapers cortisol production in order to prepare the body for rest. Since cortisol increases appetite this is thought to be a cause for the “late night snacking” that’s most often comprised of high calorie, low nutritional quality foods that destroy our weight loss. Again, think back to all the times you’ve late night snacked on a salad.

I’m having trouble recalling a time myself.

Studies have also shown a reduction in sleep during a calorie deficit leads to a decrease in the amount of body fat lost during the weight loss program. In other words, sleeping more while in a calorie deficit leads to better results compared to getting fewer hours of sack time.

As you can see one of the best, and, really, easiest things you can do to help your weight loss efforts is to get more sleep. Not to mention the benefits sleep has on mental acuity, heart health and a host of other areas of wellness.

And we can get all those benefits by making sure we get our forty winks every night.

By sleeping more we’re less stressed; our hunger hormone is kept in check, our satiety hormone increases so we’re not craving food and our main stress and appetite hormone, cortisol, is lower, which, in turn, leads to better sleep.

That’s a far better positive feedback loop than the one we discussed above. You’ll find it much easier to keep up with your calorie deficit. The increased rest will lead to better workouts, increased compliance with your nutrition and the results will start to accelerate.

In our experience, nothing is better for continued results… than results. It’s a snowball effect and it’s really cool to see.

So, what’s the best way to make sure you’re getting adequate sleep?

First and foremost, plan your sleep. Just like you have a workout program specifying which exercises to do on which days and an eating plan with your daily calories and macros, you need to schedule your sleep. Try an app on your phone. You’ll be reminded when it’s time to get ready for bed based on when you need to wake up. Some will even track your sleep for you. When you start going to bed around the same time every night your body will get used to it and let you know it’s time. You’ll also find it easier to fall asleep.

Keep your room cool and dark. Obviously, we tend to sleep better when we’re not stuck to the sheets with our own sweat. Cool it down at night and make sure the room is dark. Turn off all ambient lights and shut out any stray light that can disrupt your sleep.

Make the bedroom your sleep palace. Enjoy your sleep. If you like pajamas then buy some that are comfortable and help you sleep. Splurge on some nice linens for the bed. A good pillow will do wonders for you as well.

Turn off electronics an hour or so before bed. Blue light has been proven to be detrimental to proper sleep and you get a high dose from electronic devices. Try to cut them off a little while before you go to bed. (I purposely left out the phone because I’ve never seen it happen but try to use it for nothing more than your sleep app and alarm at this time of night.)

If you’re affected by caffeine, taper it off early in the day – around noon or so.

Exercise regularly. The good news is if you’re reading this you can check this one off. This is one of the many ways exercise is beneficial. Use it to your advantage.

Don’t go to bed hungry. A small snack before bed is often just the thing. Just make sure it fits your calories and macros.

There’s no need to worry about fat gain if you eat before going to bed – whether it’s a meal or just a snack. Numerous studies have debunked the myth that eating before bedtime causes fat gain. As long as you’re eating within your calorie and macro totals you’ll be fine. Some folks feel uncomfortable trying to go to sleep with a heavy meal onboard and, if that’s you, don’t do it.

Find a system that works for you. If you’re able to develop a method that gets you in bed on-time and asleep pretty quickly – and you can do it most nights of the week – then that’s the one for you. Just like your workouts and eating, it’s showing up every day, over a period of time, that gives you awesome results.

Sleep really is your secret weapon for getting rid of unwanted fat, reducing stress and then maintaining that awesome body once you get there. Not to mention it’s been shown to increase libido, reduce your risk of getting sick and decrease the chance of getting diabetes or cancer.

What’s not to love?

Take a day this weekend, fix up your bedroom so it’s your sleep castle and then make a plan to start sleeping your way to a healthier and leaner you.