Sleep is essential. It is the time when our bodies replenish, repairing the mental and physical wear-and-tear we suffer during the day. However, our "always-on" culture has created a sleep-deprived generation. Cell phones, computers, PDAs and 24-hour cable television keep our brains stimulated. The result is fatigue, poor health and, surprisingly, weight gain.
The Stages of Sleep
In order to understand the link between sleep deprivation and weight gain it is important to know how much quality sleep we need. Experts believe that adults require seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Studies have shown that decreased amounts of REM sleep can lead to an increased food intake. The two phases of sleep are referred to as non-REM sleep and REM sleep. The "REM" in both phases stands for "Rapid Eye Movement."
Non-REM: Non-REM sleep is divided into four phases:
- Phase 1: During this phase, a person is in between wake and sleep. The person can be awakened easily.
- Phase 2: This is a period of light sleep during which body temperature drops.
- Phase 3 and Phase 4: These are the phases during which a person experiences an increasingly deeper stage of sleep called delta sleep. During this restorative stage, the body is repairing itself, building bone and muscle and releasing certain hormones.
REM: REM is the phase during which a person dreams. It's a period of greater brain activity but less muscle activity.
Sleep Apnea and Weight Gain
Researchers now believe that sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, may contribute more to obesity than they once thought. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a sleeping person stops breathing because his or her airways are obstructed, or blocked.
Although sleep apnea can affect anyone, it is more common in overweight men. Other risk factors include being more than 40 years old, having a large neck and having a family history of the disorder. While some may think sleep apnea is just a snoring problem, if left untreated, it can lead to heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke.
People who suffer from sleep apnea and other sleep disorders are less likely to enter the deeper, restorative phases of sleep and therefore run the risk of packing on extra pounds as well.
Sleep, Hormones and Weight Gain
Leptin and Grehlin are hormones that help the body control appetite and weight gain and loss. Leptin suppresses appetite, while Grehlin increases appetite and may prevent a person from losing weight.
When lack of sleep becomes a chronic problem, levels of Grehlin increases, causing greater appetite, and levels of Leptin decrease. Regardless of diet and exercise, it's possible that some obesity is caused, or made worse, by sleep deprivation.
Getting to Sleep to Prevent Weight Gain
If you are experiencing problems sleeping and think your sleeping disorders might be causing you to gain weight, you should consider visiting a doctor, who can discuss ways to help restore your normal sleeping pattern.
You may even want to consult a sleep lab for evaluation. There, you will spend the night hooked up to electrodes, which will monitor your brain activity during sleep. The process is painless and may be covered by your insurance.
If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor may prescribe one therapy, or a combination of therapies. Regular exercise will improve your quality of sleep, as will reducing or eliminating you intake of alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.
If enlarged tonsils are obstructing your airway and causing sleep apnea, the doctor might want to surgically remove the organs. He or she also may prescribe sleep medications to help you sleep through the night. While some newer sleep medications may be used for long-term sleep problems, it's important for you and your doctor to weigh their risks and benefits.
Getting your sleep problems diagnosed and treated may be the first step in accomplishing your weight loss goals. If you've tried everything to lose weight and nothing seems to be working, don't give up. Lack of sleep may be keeping you from achieving weight loss success.