The link between sleep, weight gain, and midlife changes

man sleeping

You’ve hit midlife – age 40 plus – and suddenly things change. Physical and psychological changes that ultimately begin affecting sleep, especially lack of sleep.

If getting enough sleep seems to be an elusive stranger in the night resulting in tiredness and irritability the next day, add to this another consequence – a bigger waistline.  Many studies have shown that lack of sleep is associated with an increase in gaining weight.   Failing to obtain sufficient sleep can make it even more of a struggle for some individuals in dealing with weight management.

Lack of adequate sleep is common

Sleep insufficiency is increasingly seen as a threat to public health.  Sleep inadequacy is linked to motor vehicle accidents, industrial disasters, and medical and occupational errors.  It is estimated that 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders compromising the quality of life and adversely affecting their health.

The National Sleep Foundation advises that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night.  Most Americans average about 6 hours each night during the workweek.  You are considered sleep deprived it you routinely sleep less than 5 hours a night.

Chronic sleep deprivation has a strong link to hunger, appetite, and weight gain. As we enter midlife, difficulty in sleeping becomes more common and that’s when weight gain creeps up. Midlife sleep changes come from two categories – physical and psychological. Physically, we need less sleep. As children, our bodies required more sleep, especially deep sleep necessary for the production of both growth and sex hormones leading to puberty. Now that we’re past puberty, we need less sleep as we get older.

Psychologically, even though we need less sleep, our sleep is often interrupted by wakefulness during the night. We wake up more often with less deep sleep, a common cause of insomnia for women going through menopause. Or aches and pains disrupt good sleep. Or we’ve become physically inactive that’s now affecting the ability to sleep through the night. With age comes anxiety meaning we wake up at 3 am, struggling to get back to sleep.

How can we learn to transition our sleep habits so that we achieve a ‘good night’s rest’ and without gaining extra weight?

Why insufficient sleep can lead to weight gain

To understand the answers to this question, here is why insufficient sleep can lead to weight gain:

  • Increases food intake

First, let’s start with hormones. There are two hormones, leptin, and ghrelin, whose levels are affected by lack of sleep.  These two hormones are critical to whether we may gain too much weight or not.  Leptin tells us when to stop eating while ghrelin tells us it’s time to eat.  Lacking sufficient zzz’s causes leptin levels to go down while ghrelin levels go up.

When chronically sleep-deprived, your sleepiness may be registering to you as being hungry. Our body tries to compensate for a lack of energy (derived from sufficient sleep) by craving more calories. But the types of calories it wants are sweet and salty foods due to altering our brain chemicals making it hard to resist not-so-healthy snacks. This process is what drives us to eat a bag of chips or one too many cookies late at night.  In fact, a 2015 study in the journal Sleep found sleep-deprived individuals had 33% higher levels of a chemical compound which increases the pleasant feelings of food, especially of sweet or salty high-fat foods.   Sweet and salty foods tend to be higher in calories which will make it harder for a person craving these foods to keep weight off.

Basically, feeling hungry, feeling sluggish has a tendency to make us seek out food for an energy boost. If this sluggish feeling is happening several times a day, our caloric intake rapidly adds up.

What to do:  Start with resetting your circadian rhythm. The best way to reset your circadian rhythm is to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day (including weekends), consistently. This helps reset your body to a more stable circadian rhythm.

Next, every day, get exposure to natural sunlight, even on cloudy days. Drawback the curtains, open the shades, allowing sunlight throughout your home during the day.

Avoid stimulants, especially close to bedtime, like caffeine. Coffee, soda, even caffeine may keep you awake throwing off the natural balance between sleep and wakefulness.

About an hour before bedtime, start dimming lights including overhead and tableside lighting and all electronic devices. Artificial light exposure at night can interfere with circadian rhythm disrupting sleep.

  • Decreases energy expenditure

Chronic sleepiness leads to a lack of energy and feeling exhausted.  This means you won’t feel like going to the gym to work out or go for a long walk.  The lack of physical activity can lead to a decrease in metabolism with fewer calories being burned.  Feeling tired throughout the day can mean you may opt to choose more pre-packaged foods, higher in fat and calories instead of fixing a healthier home-cooked meal.

What to do:  The longer we put off being physically active, the more our body begins to deteriorate. Muscles weaken and lose bulk; the less muscle mass we have, the fewer calories we burn. Inactivity also leads to more shortness of breath even with minimal exercise, making physical activity unpleasant.

But, it’s never too late to slowly ease ourselves into more exercise. Spend more time outdoors getting fresh air and walking. Go for a hike, take a water aerobics class, do yoga, or work out in the yard. At least one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise is a highly effective drug-free sleep inducer.  Research backs this up – a meta-analysis exploring the relationship between sleep and exercise published in the journal of Advances in Preventive Medicine, identified 29 studies showing that exercise improved both sleep duration and sleep quality.

Bottom line

Putting into practice the advice given in this article can go a long way towards meeting your weight loss goals.  Another solution that could work for the long term in managing weight is being able to find an expert who can meet your different goals and needs.  Many individuals seeking to achieve a healthier body weight can benefit immensely from working one on one with a nutrition expert such as a registered dietitian who will provide scientific evidence-based nutrition and weight loss information who will monitor and track your progress.

Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board-certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy.  Dr. Samadi is a medical contributor to NewsMax TV and is also the author of The Ultimate MANual, Dr. Samadi’s Guide to Men’s Health and Wellness, available online both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncology and prostate cancer 911.



The link between sleep, weight gain, and midlife changes
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