Get Your ZZZ’s. Sleep Debt Contributes to Weight Gain, Metabolic Problems, and Poor Recovery

Courtesy: sleepy sticker

In the United States obesity rates are at 35.7 % and climbing (1), almost 9% of Americans are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (2), and lifestyle based diseases are driving up health-care costs to never before imagined levels. Meanwhile both the quality and quantity of our sleep has been decreasing steadily over the past few decades. Is this a coincidence? I think not. Persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity(3).

While it is quite apparent that sleep affects us on multiple fronts, I want to key in on two main issues, how sleep affects weight management and recovery.

 Weight Gain

Sleep has been shown to be a key player in weight regulation. One of the most famous studies examining the effects of sleep on weight regulation was the Wisconsin cohort study. This study was prospective (forward looking) and the evaluated examined the relationship between sleep, BMI and the following biomarkers :serum leptin and ghrelin (two key opposing hormones in appetite regulation), adiponectin, insulin, glucose, and lipid profile. The study found a U-shaped association between sleep duration and BMI was observed where persons sleeping less than 8 h (74.4% of the sample), increased BMI was proportional to decreased sleep. Short sleep was associated with low leptin, with a predicted 15.5% lower leptin for habitual sleep of 5 h versus 8 h, and high ghrelin with a predicted 14.9% higher ghrelin for sleep of 5 h versus 8 h, independent of BMI (4).

(Image from source 4)

Ok, now in everyday terms, here is what they found. Participants with short sleep had reduced leptin and elevated ghrelin.  Leptin and Ghrelin are hormones that are responsible for regulating appetite , energy regulation, and the sympathetic nervous system all in attempts to help regulate body weight. Generally, Leptin reduces the desire to eat and increases energy expenditure, while ghrelin is an appetite inducing hormone.  The differences observed in leptin and ghrelin in this stud are likely to explain the BMI increase by both increasing appetite and decreasing energy expenditure..

The change in the hormonal regulation of appetite may explain the increased BMI observed with short sleep duration. In societies, such as the United States, we experience chronic sleep deprivation.  Sleep deprivation/sleep debt alone might not be enough to contribute to weight gain. However, the easily accessible, caloric dense, highly palatable, and rewarding food, presents a highly “flammable fuel” to throw on the proverbial fire that is the obesity epidemic.

Aside from the effects of sleep on leptin and ghrelin, sleep deprivation has immediate and significant impairment in glucose regulation, where those with shorter sleep duration had higher fasting insulin, peak insulin, and promote a state of insulin resistance (5).  Sleep deprivation is also a key player in cortisol disregulation, cortisol induced insulin resistance, and the development of Cushing’s disease (6).  In my opinion, these types of results are much more important as they indicate that lack of sleep has immediate detrimental effects on the metabolic processes of your body.

What should we take away from the results of the research?

A whole field of research has been dedicated to this issue and I want to provide you a snapshot of what the research indicates. Of the 89 studies examining the effect of sleep on weight management, 81 (91%) of them have displayed positive findings, indicating a clear connection between sleep, weight management, and risk of lifestyle based diseases. Furthermore, it appears that around 8 hours of sleep a night promotes the optimum amount of sleep in regards to weight management and hormonal balance.

Sleep and Recovery/Performance

Once again, we have to address the hormonal changes that occur in regards to sleep deprivation when we look at the effect sleep has on performance/recovery. Specifically, the major axes that are negatively affected by sleep deprivation, including the hypothalamic–pituitary– adrenal axis and hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal axis.

In the presence of sleep deprivation there is an increase in the secretion of catabolic hormones, such as cortisol, along with changes secretion of anabolic hormones, such as testosterone. Elevated levels of cortisol can result in catabolism of proteins for fuel (gluconeogenesis) and inhibit an anabolic (muscle growth) environment (7). How much we sleep is not the only factor we must consider in regards to sleep and recovery. When you eat in regards to your sleep actually may hinder your recovery. Eating right before bed may mitigate IGF-1 which occurs at peak levels about 1 hour into sleep, indicating a late night snack, although tasty and usually full of “empty” calories is likely inhibiting your recovery (8).

For Further Reading “Sleep and muscle recovery: Endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis”


  4. Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E (2004) Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index. PLoS Med 1(3): e62. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062
  5. Flint J, Kothare S, Zihlif M, et al. Association between inadequate sleep and insulin resistance in obese children. J Pediatr. 2007;150(4):364–369.
  6. Krieger DT, Glick SM. Growth hormone and cortisol responsiveness in Cushing’s syndrome: Relation to a possible central nervous system etiology. The American Journal of Medicine. 1972;52(1):25–40.
  7. Dattilo M, Antunes HKM, Medeiros A, et al. Sleep and muscle recovery: Endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis. Medical Hypotheses. 2011;77(2):220–222.

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