Is Your Sleep Preventing Weight Loss?
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I’m not here to tell you what you already know, which is that being sleep deprived is hard on your body.
I’m also not here to convince you that lack of sleep makes it harder to lose weight. (Although I’ll talk about that briefly.)
The real reason for this article is to show you that, even if you get plenty of shut-eye and think sleep ISN’T a problem for you, your sleep habits might still be playing a role in why you have trouble getting rid of excess fat.
This Is Personal
For a good chunk of my life, I had trouble with sleep.
Even when our kids were newborns and I was constantly exhausted, I’d lie in bed at night wide awake, sometimes for hours (during my only chance to get good sleep!).
I’ve also had seasons of life where I could sleep 10 hours straight and still have no energy the next day.
When I turned 30 I had an epiphany: I’m not some teenager who stays out late and doesn’t sleep enough simply because I don’t have responsibilities that force me to do otherwise. This doesn’t have to be normal.
Over the years, I’ve made a lot of changes and, not only do I sleep better (and fall asleep faster), I wake up most days ready to go, I have energy to get me through the day, and at 38 years old, I’m genuinely in the best shape of my entire life.
I know diet and exercise plays a big role in that. And I’m no sleep expert (I’m not a doctor, either). But one thing I’ve learned on my journey is, whether you think you have sleep problems or not, it’s a topic you shouldn’t ignore.
What To Know First
I’m not going to belabor this point, but it’s important to understand that lack of sleep on its own WILL make weight loss harder. There are 2 specific reasons for this:
1. It can make you eat more calories.
This shouldn’t come as a shock. We’ve all had nights where we stay up too late and decide to have something to eat, and we all know those food choices tend to be less than stellar.
These decisions only get worse the more sleep deprived you become. (As this study shows.)
2. It causes you to lose muscle and bone rather than fat.
The more muscle and bone (aka “lean mass”) you lose, the worse you’ll feel and the more likely you’ll be to gain the weight back later. One study (shown here) showed that lack of sleep can cause you to lose 55% less fat, and 60% more lean mass.
➡️ Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep to avoid these 2 pitfalls.
Once you start getting even less, losing weight is the least of your concerns since you’ll also be at a higher risk of chronic diseases, especially stroke and cancer (as this study shows).
But let’s say you already get at least 7 hours of sleep at night. How could your sleep habits still be making it harder to lose weight?
More Than Quantity
Every bit as important as the number of hours you sleep each night is the quality of those hours.
Just because you’re in bed for 8 hours doesn’t mean you automatically wake up refreshed. If your sleep is interrupted in any way, even briefly, you don’t get the benefits of deep sleep. Which means 8 hours might be more like only getting 4.
In other words, you could have the same troubles with weight loss that I mentioned above, but without even realizing there’s a problem with your sleep at all.
To be fair, there are seasons of life where this is unavoidable (like when you have a baby). I’m not saying all things in life have to be perfectly balanced before you can start losing weight.
In fact, quite the opposite.
I’m saying, no matter what you have going on in your life, if you want to feel the best you can possibly feel (realistically, considering your current circumstances) AND have more success with weight loss, there are certain things you should consider…
You say caffeine doesn’t stop you from falling asleep, and you might be right. But that doesn’t mean it’s good sleep.
Caffeine has been shown (in this study) to reduce the quality of your sleep when you have it within 6 hours of bedtime.
Your best bet is to avoid it after lunch.
Alcohol might help you fall asleep, but the quality of your sleep will be compromised.
Studies vary on advice. You might be fine with a drink or two (at most), but your best bet is to avoid it right before bed.
You may think the lights from your phone or TV don’t bother you, but they do.
The light has been shown (in this study) to significantly suppress melatonin, which messes with the quality of your sleep.
Your best bet is to avoid bright lights (including TVs and phones) at least 30 minutes before bed, if not more like 2 hours (start small and see if it helps).
Melatonin has been proven to improve sleep, but there are 3 reasons I don’t recommend it as a first course of action:
1. It’s Unregulated
In the USA, it’s a supplement, and supplements aren’t regulated. Which means you could be getting way more, or less, than the label claims. It could also be filled with contaminants. (As this study shows.)
2. The Dosage
The recommended dosage of melatonin ranges all the way from 0.1mg to 5mg, yet many products contain way more than that. And if you take too much (potentially more than 0.3mg), it may not work. So knowing how much to take requires serious experimentation. (As this study shows.)
3. It Can be a Band-Aid
Melatonin can’t counter-affect other bad sleep habits.
Staring at your phone or TV for hours and then popping a melatonin pill might make you think you’re getting better sleep, but you aren’t. (As this study shows.)
It’s worth mentioning that being overweight can make you sleep less than normal, which you wouldn’t necessarily be aware of until you lost weight and started sleeping more. (As this study shows.)
In other words, it’s a vicious cycle:
If you sleep less, you’re more likely to be overweight. And if you’re overweight, you’re more likely to sleep less.
What To Do Instead
So poor sleep can hurt weight loss just as much as lack of sleep. And, as you can see, the quality of your sleep can be affected in many ways.
Fortunately, there are also some things to consider that impact the quality of your sleep in a good way…
Do the same thing every night for at least 30-60 minutes before you go to sleep. Get ready for bed, then turn down the lights, turn off the electronics, read a book, meditate, etc.
Set an alarm to remind yourself.
Inconsistent noises can also diminish sleep quality. White noise (like a fan or sound machine) drowns them out.
Working out during the day means better sleep at night.
Just keep in mind, if you exercise intensely, you may need more hours of sleep for recovery. Most of our clients do moderate workouts that are about 30 min. long just 2-3 times per week. (It’s a myth that working out more is more effective — see why in our free guide.)
Giving your body the nutrients it needs to function well is a HUGE part of the solution.
Personally, I started out with supplements. I’ve already said I don’t recommend it as a first choice, but there’s no doubt that melatonin, in certain contexts, can help.
I also found that supplementing with magnesium made a difference for me.
For the same reasons I can’t advise you to take melatonin, I’m NOT saying you should jump on the magnesium train. But if you already have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about testing for a magnesium deficiency.
The thing that makes the biggest difference, though, is simply getting a better balance of all kinds of different nutrients from high-quality (aka minimally-processed) foods — especially lots of veggies.
(Let us help you with this! Apply for our coaching here.)
Some things contribute to being overweight more than others. Sleep is one of the big ones.
I’ve linked a lot of studies in this article, and the big takeaway from ALL of them combined is this:
If you’re not getting at least 7 hours of high-quality sleep at night and you think you’re just fine… it’s actually more likely that you’re so used to being chronically sleep deprived (even just a little) that you don’t realize how much better you COULD feel if you got a bit more.
Remember, whether it’s sleep, diet, exercise, or all 3, you don’t have to get it perfect and do everything at once — even doing just a little better still helps.
So be honest about what might make the biggest difference for you and start there. (Or get help and we can just tell you what will help the most.)
If you don’t get 7+ hours of sleep each night, it will make weight loss more difficult (even if you think you don’t need that much).
If you DO sleep 7+ hours every night, but have a cup of coffee in the afternoon, or drink wine before bed, or watch TV to get tired… it affects your quality of sleep (even if you think it doesn’t) and can be as bad as getting less than 7 hours of sleep.
If you want sleep that helps you feel your best AND gives you more success with weight loss, 2 of the biggest solutions are diet & exercise. Let us help you with that! Apply for our coaching here.