Craig Leonard

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Sleep and Weight Loss: How Not Getting Enough Sleep Will Damn Your Fat Loss Efforts

Craig Leonard March 10, 2014
Sleep and Weight Loss

Did you know the amount of time you spend in your bed each day can determine the rate at which you’re able to shed fat?

The effect sleep has on our ability to lose body fat can be good or bad, depending on whether we’re sufficiently resting our bodies or depriving it of the slumber it requires to thrive.

Sleep is a complex subject and there’s still a vast stockpile of physiological mechanisms influenced by our sleep patterns that are yet to be fully understood. However, it is well known that the body requires a certain amount of rest and that depriving it of said rest can be problematic on a number of fronts.

This obviously begs the following oft-asked question: How much sleep does the human body really need?

The question of how much sleep is best for humans has been a topic of debate for centuries.

When Napoleon Bonaparte was asked how many hours of sleep people need, he is said to have replied: “Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.”

Like anything else, the amount of sleep that is right for each person is usually interpreted in light of one’s priorities. For someone like Donald Trump looking to build their business empire, four or five hours of sleep per night will likely be an inevitable result.

By contrast, those with little ambition, no responsibilities and a lacking work ethic are likely to be on the opposite end of the sleep quantity spectrum.

Today, there is little debate regarding the importance of sleep among health professionals and personal trainers alike. It is well understood that sufficient sleep is imperative to one’s level of health and that neglecting it will be a detriment to both muscle gain and fat loss.

So you’d expect that those who view their fitness, health and physical appearance as a high priority would commit to adequately resting their bodies. In my experience, though, this is rarely the case, as it appears the health benefits of sleep are largely misunderstood, underestimated or written off as unimportant.

Will Not Sleeping Enough Really Slow Your Fat Loss?

Sleep and Weight Loss

While the amount of sleep a person needs is, to a certain degree, individualistic, most health professionals agree that sleeping for at least 7 hours per night is a good target for the average person.

Those who are mostly sedentary can generally get away with 7 hours of sleep per day without any problems. For those of us that train our bodies, though, 8 hours is a much better goal.

You may be thinking 8 hours of sleep is an impossibility with your current schedule and number of commitments. I feel you. I really do.

But believe me when I tell you that there are people out there who are just as busy and still getting 8 hours of sleep per night. It’s simply a matter of making it a priority.

Not to worry, I’m going to give you some advice on how to get in your 8 hours of sleep. First, though, I want you to have an appreciation for why this is so important – not just in terms of your health, but also in terms of how sleep deprivation will negatively affect the composition of your body.

After all, it isn’t really fair for me to ask you to make getting 8 hours of sleep per night a priority without giving you some hard evidence as to why you should listen to that advice.

A prime reason sleep doesn’t get the attention it deserves within fitness circles likely has to do with the fact that many of the ways it influences our results are indirect and slow-accumulating in nature. In other words, you’re probably not going to wake up noticeably fatter after a couple of late nights and early mornings.

Over time, though, not getting enough sleep will take its toll on your physique through the hormonal chaos it will inflict.

Specifically, there are two hormones that are influenced by sleep deprivation in such a way that they combine to create a virtual fat-storing nightmare.

I will discuss each of these hormones individually before finally commenting on the cumulative fat-shedding nightmare they will enact on your physique.

While I don’t intend to settle the age-old debate surrounding the amount of sleep humans ought to be getting, I am going to prove to you that depriving your body of sleep will make you fatter.

Sleep Deprivation’s Little Fat-Hoarding “Gremlin”

Sleep and Weight Loss - Gremlin

You may have never heard of ghrelin before. Compared to the publicity given to other hormones, ghrelin is behind the scenes and masked in obscurity.

Some of this has to do with the fact that ghrelin was discovered only 15 years ago (1999).

Nevertheless, let’s lift the veil of obscurity, shall we?

Ghrelin (pronounced like “gremlin” without the “m”) is produced by cells contained within the pancreas and stomach.

Pragmatically speaking, the presence of ghrelin in the body is proportionately linked to our feelings of hunger.

In other words, the more ghrelin our bodies produce, the hungrier we feel. It would seem logical then that those with chronically elevated ghrelin levels would also be more likely to be carrying around an unhealthy amount of body fat.

While this assumption may be logical, I want to be careful not to proclaim that there is a definitive correlation between ghrelin and obesity. Admittedly, I’ve researched a number of studies to determine if such a conclusion can be reasonably drawn and the verdict is still out.

This seems to largely stem from the fact that our hormones are designed to interact and counteract with one another, making it difficult to isolate ghrelin as a chief villain in the fight against obesity.1

That said, we do know that elevated ghrelin levels increase feelings of hunger, decrease satiation and are correlated with greater caloric intake. Obviously, these characteristics are undesirable to anyone concerned with getting lean or maintaining a healthy body fat percentage.

So how does this relate to our sleep patterns?

It’s very simple, actually…

The amount of sleep we provide our bodies is directly tied to the amount of ghrelin we produce.

As this study points out, sleep deprivation causes a rise in ghrelin production while simultaneously depleting the body’s leptin output (I’ll discuss leptin’s role in this equation in just a moment).

In the study, subjects who rested for 4.5 hours experienced measured spikes in ghrelin levels that were as much as 32% higher than subjects who received 7 hours of rest.

Believe it or not, you’ve probably felt the difference not getting enough sleep has had on your ghrelin levels. In fact, anyone who’s ever stayed up way too late knows about this all too well.

No matter how much you eat, you still feel hungry and unsatisfied. To make matters worse, the foods you crave are predominantly of the fast food variety or found at the local Chinese buffet.

For whatever reason, ghrelin seems to have a special affinity for meat lover’s pizzas, double bacon cheeseburgers and rocky road ice cream (at least that’s what my little “gremlin” seems to crave).

When you find yourself in this situation after a late night it feels all but impossible to not gorge yourself on food.

We’re already bombarded with sinful nutritional temptations on what seems like a minute-by-minute basis. Why make complying with your nutritional goals any harder than it already is by not getting enough rest and allowing your ghrelin production to spiral out of control?

Leptin: The Yin to Ghrelin’s Yang

Sleep and Weight Loss - Yin Yang

The same study I referenced earlier mentioned decreased leptin levels as being another side effect of even just a single night of sleep deprivation. Like ghrelin, leptin hasn’t been on the scene for very long.

It was first recognized as a hormone back in 1994 and its power over our hunger, feelings of satiety and our ability to lose unwanted body fat has been getting a ton of attention as of late – and rightfully so.

My favorite supplement company has even formulated a solution that enhances leptin production and mitigates feelings of hunger.

Ghrelin and leptin have a check and balance relationship with one another. Ghrelin makes us feel hungry, and once our body detects that it’s been sufficiently fed, leptin takes over, squashing our feelings of hunger by replacing it with feelings of satiety.

Leptin is secreted by our fat cells and is then received by receptors in the hypothalamus which communicates to our brain that we are no longer hungry. This process typically works great for individuals who eat clean the majority of the time.

Unfortunately, the diets of most Americans are wrought with highly processed foods, containing HFCS, artificial ingredients and GMOs – all of which wreak havoc on the body’s hormones. Of particular importance is the fact that “foods” which fall into these categories will lead to the onset of leptin resistance over time.

Leptin resistance describes the condition where the hypothalamus becomes desensitized to leptin. When this happens, the body struggles to turn off feelings of hunger, making it that much harder to abstain from unhealthy foods and all but impossible not to overeat.

As it pertains to our sleep patterns, consider this:

How the hormones leptin and ghrelin set the stage for overeating was recently explored in two sleep and weight loss studies conducted at the University of Chicago in Illinois and at Stanford University in California.

In the Chicago study, doctors measured levels of leptin and ghrelin in 12 healthy men. They also noted their hunger and appetite levels.

Soon after, the men were subjected to two days of sleep deprivation followed by two days of extended sleep. During this time doctors continued to monitor hormone levels, appetite, and activity.

The end result: When sleep was restricted, leptin levels went down and ghrelin levels went up.

Not surprisingly, the men’s appetite also increased proportionally. In fact, their desire for high carbohydrate, calorie-dense foods increased by a whopping 45%.

It was in the Stanford study, however, that the more provocative insight into this leptin-ghrelin effect came to light.

In this research – a joint project between Stanford and the University of Wisconsin – about 1,000 volunteers reported the number of hours they slept each night. Doctors then measured their levels of ghrelin and leptin, as well as charted their weights.

The result: Those who slept less than eight hours a night not only had lower levels of leptin and higher levels of ghrelin, but they also had a higher levels of body fat.

What’s perhaps more telling is that the participant’s level of body fat seemed to directly correlate with their sleep patterns, as those who slept the fewest hours per night weighed the most.2

In other words, what this study concluded is that the less you sleep, the more body fat you will have. It also appears that this relationship between sleep and body fat is directly tied to the leptin-ghrelin hormonal dichotomy.

Can I unequivocally tell you that your life will be better, happier or more productive by getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night?


Priorities vary, what every person values is different, and having a few extra productive hours in your day may be worth the hormonal sacrifice to you.

But I can tell you that depriving your body of sleep is going to contribute to fat gain and may even damn your fat loss results altogether. The choice is yours.

A Few Timely Tips To Help You Catch Some More Zzzzzs

Sleep and Weight Loss

If you’re thinking to yourself that you’d love to get 8 hours of sleep every night, but can’t see how on earth to make it happen, I want you to know that I’ve been there.

Who am I kidding? I still find myself there quite often.

I must admit that I don’t get 8 hours of sleep every single night.

I can honestly say, though, that the number of nights when I get 8 hours of sleep greatly outweighs the number of those that I don’t on a weekly basis.

If you want to improve your sleep quality, you can find hundreds of tips for getting a better night’s sleep by doing a quick Google search. You’ll find advice on everything from how high the thread count of your sheets should be to what you should eat before bed.

I don’t have million thread count, Egyptian cotton bed sheets. I don’t worry about how what I eat before bed might impact my sleep (other than making sure I abstain from caffeine). Worrying about these things is, in my opinion, majoring in the minutiae.

In other words, they aren’t worth fretting over.

I am able to get 8 hours of rest on most nights for one simple reason: I make it a priority.

More than anything else, you need to come to terms with the fact that rest is extremely important to your physical well-being and start being intentional about giving your body the rest it needs to flourish to its full potential.

After you’re ready to make that commitment, here are a few more tips for keeping your sleep schedule on track:

  • Train your body to operate on a specific sleep pattern by going to bed at approximately the same time each night and rising at the same time each morning. After a few days you will naturally become tired near your normal bedtime and will naturally rise at your usual wake time.
  • Do something relaxing during the 30 minutes leading into sleep. Read a book (nothing too stimulating or controversial). Have sex (while this is temporarily stimulating, afterward your body will release a chemical called oxytocin which relaxes you and makes falling asleep a cinch).3 Pray, meditate or just sit in silence to clear your mind of the day’s stresses.
  • Lay down in bed 15-30 minutes before you plan to fall asleep.
  • Dim the lights 30 minutes before bed. If you plan to read in bed, use enough light that your ability to read isn’t hindered, but no more than that.
  • Shut down your laptops, smartphones, ipads, stereos and televisions before laying down and consider them off limits until morning. I struggle with this one because I like to read on my ipad while in bed. Still, reading text off of a well-lit ipad screen will impair your ability to fall asleep.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption (more than 1 or 2 drinks) before bed. Alcohol impairs sleep quality and drinking excessively before bed will make your body function as though it is sleep deprived even if you’re technically asleep for the recommended 8 hours.
  • Sleep somewhere quiet (or wear a pair of ear plugs while you slumber if there is a level of background noise present that will inhibit your ability to sleep).

There are other less important tips I could list, but sticking to these guidelines alone will have an incredible impact on improving your sleep habits.

(And fellas: If your wife tries to use the old “I have a headache excuse”, kindly let her know that Craig says it’s important for your sleep quality. 😉 )

Make Your Hormones Work for You, Not Against You

We work hard enough at training our bodies and feeding them for success.

As I’ve hopefully convinced you, not getting enough rest will only make achieving your goals that much harder by damaging your hormones and making them work against you through excessive feelings of hunger, bouts of overeating and ravenous cravings for unhealthy, overly processed foods.

Stop sabotaging your results.

REST. YOUR. BODY. Resources:

Photo Credits:
1 Tired Man On Couch
2 Woman Sleeping
3 Gremlin
4 Yin Yang
5 You Snooze You Lose

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