Have you ever sat on the couch, in the middle of the night, watching late night infomercials or old movies, while munching on potato chips because you can’t sleep? Most people can relate to this image to some degree. Insomnia and late night eating go hand in hand and are quite common. Unfortunately, coping with insomnia in this manner actually makes it worse. This article will define obesity, discuss research regarding the connection between sleep deprivation and obesity, as well as provide tips on how to avoid this late night scenario.
40 years ago, pictures of starving children were on televisions all around the world. People in Africa, and other parts of the world, were quite literally starving to death and obesity wasn’t the norm. However, this has changed. While starvation continues to be an issue in some areas, it is no longer the “norm”. A different form of “starvation” has taken its place, that of obesity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more people live in areas where obesity kills far more than starvation. In fact, 1.9 billion adults over the age of 18 are clinically overweight, with 650 million of these being obese. Obesity and overweight individuals are not isolated to adults. The WHO estimates that 378 million children and adolescents under the age of 19 are overweight or obese. (10) When these statistics are paired with the knowledge that 1 in 3 individuals have some form of insomnia, sleep deprivation needs to be considered as a contributing factor for obesity (9,10).
According to the medical dictionary, obesity is defined as: “an abnormal accumulation of body fat, usually 20% or more, over an individual’s ideal body weight.” (4) The WHO defines overweight as individuals with a body mass index (BMI) of equal or greater than 25 and obesity as a BMI of equal or greater than 30 (10). Obesity often leads to secondary issues, such as arthritis, heart disease, infertility, skin disorders, depression, sleep apnea, and, of course, sleep disorders. (4)
While statistics suggest a possible correlation between obesity and insomnia or sleep disorders, there is also scientific data to support this correlation. Two studies, which looked at a range of subjects from childhood through adulthood, showed that individuals with sleep disorders or sleep deprivation, had an increased risk of being overweight or obese, when compared to a control group. (2,11)
The main reason for this correlation is an imbalance in the circadian cycle (CC ) or the body’s internal clock. (3, 6, 8) Sleep disorders disrupt the CC within the body. Every gene, cell, organ and system in our body has an internal clock, as part of the CC, including our hormones. (7) Two hormones regulate our appetite: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin tells us when we’re full, while ghrelin tells us when we’re hungry. When the body lacks sleep, and the CC is out of balance, so is the production of leptin and ghrelin. Leptin levels decrease, while ghrelin levels increase. The misalignment of our CC also affects the gut microbiome, causing an imbalance. In combination, these two imbalances lead to an increase in caloric intake as well as cravings, changes to eating behavior and food choices. (3, 6, 8)
Another, secondary, link between sleep deprivation and obesity lies in the type of food consumed during the day. One study, through the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), researched the association between high glycemic index (GI) and high glycemic load (GL) foods in relation to insomnia and sleep deprivation. The WHI studied over 93,000 postmenopausal women between the ages of 50 and 79, using questionnaires to determine dietary intake. (5)
The results indicate that individuals consuming diets consisting largely of high GI and GL foods had a high body mass index and a greater chance at developing insomnia or other sleep disorders. There are three reasons for the disruption in sleep. First, the uptake of tryptophan, the precursor serotonin and melatonin, is disrupted when high GI/GL foods are consumed in a meal that contains as little as 2.5 % protein. When tryptophan uptake is disrupted, the body cannot produce serotonin or the all important sleep hormone melatonin. A second reason is based on the imbalance in blood glucose caused by an high GI/GL diet. A diet high in refined carbohydrates inevitably causes spikes in blood sugar or hyperglycemia, followed significant drop in blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. These highs and lows cause a spike in stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which disrupt sleep. Research also shows that hypoglycemia can cause individuals to wake from sleep, and interferes with sleep efficiency. Finally, high GI/GL diets are known to cause a disruption to the gut microbiome, which affect many aspects of sleep, including the CC. (5)
Knowing what connects sleep deprivation and obesity is only half the battle. It is necessary to fix the problems, beginning with the broken CC. An in depth look at the CC will be presented a future article. However, for now, it is important to know this: the body LOVES a strict schedule. To reset your your CC, Dr. Satchin Panda, CC expert and author of the book Circadian Code, recommends doing the following: (7)
• Implement time-restricted eating –
• Establish a “time window” for eating. The greatest benefits come from an 8 hour window, such as 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
• Start with a 12 hour window and reduce by one hour each week.
• Eat meals at the same time everyday, as often as possible.
• Exercise regularly, preferably at the same time each day
• aerobics in the morning
• muscle toning and weight lifting in the afternoon.
• Develop good “sleep hygiene”
• Be consistent, even on the weekends. Arise at the same time every day.
• Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.
• Don’t eat, watch television or work on the computer while in your room. Your bedroom is only for sleeping and sex.
• Avoid bright lights at night. These lights disrupt the production of melatonin, necessary for a good night sleep.
• Stay away from electronics 30 to 60 minutes before your scheduled bedtime.
• Don’t eat right before bed. It’s best to eat at least 2 – 3 hours before bed.
In addition to the changes recommended by Dr. Panda listed above, changes to diet are also important for weight loss, proper sleep and homeostasis throughout the body. The WHI study showed that individuals who eliminated refined or processed carbohydrates, and ate a low GI/ GL, whole food diet had a lower body mass index, and a lower risk of developing a sleep disorder. (5)
After reviewing the information in this article, it is clear the late night scenario contained a few problems. First, eating late at night disrupts the internal CC that is so important for homeostasis in the body. (7) Second, the potato chips are a processed, starchy carbohydrate, which can cause blood glucose to spike and drop, contributing to a poor night sleep. (5) Lastly, the light from the television disrupts the production of melatonin. Without proper amounts of melatonin, the body cannot rest properly. (7)
Sleep disorders and obesity are at epidemic proportions around the world, with up to 70 million adults in the United States suffering from a sleep disorders and millions around the world suffering from obesity. (1) Sleep affects all aspects of health and wellness and is important to include in a healthy lifestyle. This article touched briefly on the connection between sleep deprivation, obesity and the CC. Future articles will take a closer look at other dangers of sleep deprivation, which affect our health and happiness, as well as a close look at the CC, how it works and how we can reset our internal clock. The next article will look at sleep deprivation and heart disease.
Tamara Hoerner graduated Summa Cum Laude from Hawthorn’s
Master of Science in Health and Nutrition Education program in 2019. She also holds a double major in Elementary and Special Education from Northern State University and is the founder of Purple Almond Wellness which began as a blog called “The Purple Almond”. The name “Purple Almond” symbolizes what food means to Tamara. Purple symbolizes healing of mind, body, spirit and awareness of self. Almond trees are known as the “tree of life” and symbolize light and awakening. Together, Purple Almond means “Good Nutritious whole food brings light and life to the body, awakening the inherent healing powers within.” Tamara’s passion for nutrition was sparked when she watched others improve their health by changing their diets, so she entered Hawthorn to “learn more”. She plans to work with adults between 40 and 65 years old who struggle with weight, heart disease, or memory issues. Tamara can be reached via her website: http://www.purplealmondwellness.com.
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7. Panda, S., (2018). The circadian code. Rodale Books. Crown Publishing: New York, New York.
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9. Sleep Health Foundation, (2011). Insomnia. Retrieved from: https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/pdfs/Insomnia.pdf
10. World Health Organization, (2020). Obesity and overweight. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight
11. Xin-Hua, Y., Hong, C., Xi-Guang, K., and Qian, Z. (2019). Association between obesity and sleep disorders among children in Lanzhou, China. DOI: 10.7499/j.issn.1008-8830.2019.10.007. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31642432/?from_term=sleep+disorders+obesity&from_filter=simsearch2. ffrft&from_filter=ds1.y_5&from_pos=1