Not getting enough sleep can lead to weight gain and other issues. / SUR

Lack of sleep can lead to weight gain

Up to 30% of people in Spain wake up feeling as though they haven't had a good sleep, and only a third of the population gets enough sleep during the working week


There are some predictable consequences to having a few bad nights of sleep, such as memory loss and lack of concentration. However, speaking to experts in the field reveals that not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can jeopardise all of our physiological systems: cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, immunological and neurocognitive. These are just a few of the areas impacted by long-term or chronic insomnia.

Lack of sleep and weight gain

We are not talking of episodes associated with specific ailments such as narcolepsy that generate compulsive eating and consequent weight gain. Lack of sleep denotes the inability to get enough hours of sleep (between seven and nine) on a regular basis. This affects the regulation of the little known hormones ghrelin and leptin which control hunger and satiety. A healthy sleeping pattern is necessary to maintain an adequate balance of these hormones – inadequate sleep leads to impulsive eating, triggering cravings for carbohydrates which are easily absorbed by the body but generally have worse consequences.

The severity of this issue is clear: according to the Sociedad Española de Neurología (Spanish Neurology Society), 30% of people in Spain wake up feeling feeling as though they have not had a restorative sleep, and only a third of the population gets enough sleep during the working week.

A groundbreaking study

The link between a bad night's sleep and weight gain has long been known by specialists, and there is remarkable scientific evidence and studies to prove it. But until a recent study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, most of this scientific literature was thanks to observational studies as opposed to intervention in real settings. This new groundbreaking study "provides the first evidence of beneficial effects of sleep lengthening on energy intake and body weight, assessed objectively in participants who continued to live in their home environment". The scientists recruited individuals with sleep problems, and divided the trial participants into two groups. They were observed for two weeks, during which one group served as a control and the other had professional support to help them get more hours of sleep. The energy expenditure of both groups was then measured.

Over the course of the investigation, the control group got an average of six hours of sleep per night and those who had professional intervention got an average of seven hours. The caloric intake of both groups also changed – it was inversely proportional to the number of hours of sleep (i.e, the more hours of sleep, the lower the caloric intake). The conclusion was clear: "Participants in the intervention group had a statistically significant weight reduction compared to those in the control group".

How to improve quality and quantity of sleep?

Considering the evidence that improving sleep routines has immediate benefits, there are some simple steps which can be taken to get a better nights sleep.

- Getting enough exposure to sunlight during the day (which helps to keep the body clock in sync).

- Not consuming caffeinated substances after a certain time (none five hours before bedtime).

- Engaging in moderate exercise in the morning or midday (this also helps to synchronise our body clock and release anxiety, although it is better to not exercise near bedtime).

- Creating a calm sleep environment (quiet, comfortable, and gently lit).

- Associating bed only with sleep (not sitting in bed to work or talk on the phone).

- Establishing a clear sleep schedule (discipline is important, as tempting as it is to watch your favourite TV show until 2am).

These changes, based on a mixture of basic science and common sense, aren't difficult to implement, and may be all it takes to achieve a major improvement in all aspects of health.