You need sleep like food. And if you don’t sleep, you’ll need more food.
Posted April 9, 2013
A Weighty Conundrum
Americans are obsessed with weight. We weigh too much, we’re told. Obesity will kill many, many of us.
The truth about weight is far more complicated. Part of that truth: a person’s weight is controlled by hundreds of different factors. And those are ones we know about.
The color of a room can change how much we eat. The choice of rice at lunch can cause us to ingest microRNAs that immediately change our cholesterol making genes. Exercising in sunlight probably makes us make more muscle, less fat.
As for the unknown unknowns, we are beginning to learn what our six pounds of gut bacteria do to weight and size.
But amidst profound unknowledge of what really controls weight, we’ve been learning something—sleep less, weigh more. The evidence is piling up.
A Few Hours Rest
Kenneth Wright just did a series of studies at the University of Colorado, so carefully he measured the continual ins and outs of people’s oxygen consumption in special rooms appropriate for a simulated NASA Mars mission. He was looking to see what a few hours sleep deprivation would do to weight. The answer: increase it. Fast.
Sixteen people were studied. One half slept nine hours, ate what they wanted. The other half went to bed a midnight, got up at five. Then the groups switched places. What happened? Here are a few findings:
1. Staying up late used more calories. Yes, waking takes more energy than sleep. But not by much. His group added 111 calories for the night—similar to other studies. The equivalent of an apple.
2. Staying up made people hungry. They gained weight. They ate more. Considerably more. And more importantly, they craved sugary and fatty foods, and ate far more of them. In a few days, they gained on average two pounds.
Not much, you think? Let’s say it’s two pounds a week. Multiple the weeks, and you see where that goes.
When they got the chance to sleep more, the weight came off. But much more slowly, just like in real life. Humans are built for intermittent starvation. We love keeping our fat stores ready for those evolutionarily-expected famines. When we can, we feast—even more ravenously when we’re sleep deprived.
3. Foul up body clocks and people eat more—and less healthily. In line with many animal studies, the people who slept five hours found themselves waking at irregular times. They then possessed irregular hungers. Just what happens to shift workers, who gain weight and suffer from far more gastrointestinal problems than the rest of the population—along with more heart disease.
Break out from our normal biological clocks and they really want sugary, fatty foods. That’s what shift workers find—with the snack food dispensing machines so thoughtfully placed nearby in their workplaces.
Were These Findings Unexpected?
No. The University of Chicago group under Eve van Cauter has been showing for years that less sleep makes people look pre-diabetic. Since glucose is the most important fuel source in the body—and the only one usable by blood and brain until prolonged starvation—looking pre-diabetic in a matter of hours means a lot.
Though weight gets fingered as “the problem,” diabetes itself is in many ways more of a national scourge. And diabetes seems a lot easier to get if people don’t sleep enough.
Sleep less, weigh more. Subsidiary fact: sleeping more, and more effectively, should make it easier to control weight and improve overall health.
Body clocks quickly change eating patterns and weight. The understanding is this: to regenerate your body correctly, you need certain conditions. You need sleep. You require sleep like food. And if you don’t sleep, you’ll require more food. And you might not be that able to stop yourself from eating.
Dr. Matthew Edlund, M.D., M.O.H., is an internationally recognized expert on rest, sleep, and body clocks. His books include The Body Clock Advantage, Designed to Last, and Psychological Time and Mental Illness. His new book, The Power of Rest, shows that rest is a skill that rebuilds, renews, and rewires mind and body, and can increase productivity, health, and pleasure. For more information, visit his website, TheRestDoctor.com. You can also subscribe to his new Fitcast via the iTunes Store.