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Harnessing the Power of Sleep for Weight Loss

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Harnessing the Power of Sleep for Weight Loss

We don’t normally consider sleeping as a way to lose weight.  There’s not a lot of physical activity, not a lot of movement, and it is, for most of us, effortless.  At the end of the day we crawl into bed and wake up the next morning hopefully refreshed, and don’t even think about the effort that goes into sleeping or the benefits that come from getting a good night’s sleep.  On the surface it might appear that there’s not a lot going on and certainly your level of physical activity drops off to daily lows, but below the surface there is actually a lot that goes on to restore and maintain body processes. This “sub-surface activity”  burns calories as you sleep.  Understanding what happens during sleep, and building habits and routines that support the regenerative powers of sleep can aid in weight control, and more generally it can lead to an improvement in one’s overall health.

What Happens During Sleep

Since the discovery of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep in 1953, many studies have been carried out on the subject of sleep expanding our understanding of the importance of sleep for both body and mind. While we are sleeping our brains cycle through five stages of sleep, including the last stage ( REM ) most often associated with dreaming. Through this process a regeneration of cells takes place in the body that involves all of the major  systems including the muscular, skeletal, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems. The brain plays a central role in all of this. 

Generally, during sleep the brain limits physical activity, slows our heart rate, reduces body temperature and blood pressure, and regulates breathing . The process of digesting the day's food continues, kidney function decreases, and the day’s events and thoughts are processed and consolidated leading to a re-wiring of the brain. All of these activities require energy which the body finds easily through burning available sugars or fat.  If sugars are not available then the body burns fat.  A person of average weight may burn up to 500 calories in this fashion during sleep. Water loss during sleep due to breathing and sweating can also show up in the scales.


Sleeping well makes a huge difference

What Happens  When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

Most adults need seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep to benefit from the restorative process that sleep brings.  Getting too little sleep can leave us feeling drawn out, foggy, in a poor mood, and unable to cope at the same levels that we normally do when we get a good night’s sleep. Insufficient sleep can also negatively affect levels of anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness. It definitely lowers our immune system so that it is easier to catch colds or viruses and it makes it harder for us to fight disease. On a long term basis, studies show that a lack of sleep increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity;  left untreated, it can lead to a cycle of sleeping poorly, eating poorly, and not getting enough exercise.

For people who are trying to lose weight or control their weight,  getting a good night’s sleep is particularly important. In the absence of sufficient sleep our bodies create more of the hormone Ghrelin which signals hunger in the brain. Higher levels of Cortisol, due to a lack of sleep, may also increase hunger. A desire for fatty foods and carbohydrates is a common desire following poor sleep, and can be a slippery slope to eating poorly in general. Some people find the following sleep related habits to be useful when they are trying to control their weight.

8 Habits for Harnessing the Power of Sleep 

(1)  Stop eating at least three hours before going to bed.  By lengthening the time between the last meal of the day and the first meal of the next day ( 12 hours is ideal ), you give your body that much more time to process food and to burn calories. If you find that you are hungry, drink water.

(2)  No late night snacks.

(3)  Set a Sleep Schedule . Go to sleep and get up at the same time every day.  Limit yourself to 8 hours sleep at most.

(4)  Get some exercise during the day, such as a daily walk.

(5)  Create a sleep environment that is “sleep friendly” (i.e. cool, dark and quiet).

(6)  Refrain from consuming nicotine, caffeine and alcohol as early as possible in  the evening as the effects take hours to wear off and can keep you awake.

(7)  Go to the bathroom before going to bed so your bladder doesn't wake you up mid sleep.

(8)  Seek out professional help if you have problems sleeping or if you don’t feel refreshed after sleeping.

Sleeping is an important part of life. We spend on average about 1/4 to 1/3 of our lives asleep. Viewing sleep as a means to better health and weight control can help bring about positive change.

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