Can Sleep Deprivation Cause Obesity?

Dr. Jeffrey Heit Health Guide
  • A recent study showed that at least a third of Americans do not get enough sleep. What's enough sleep? While everyone is a little different, eight to nine hours nightly seems to be the most widely accepted amount. The obvious concern is that a third of us may be walking around sleepy, fatigued, irritable and stressed. A more insidious result of sleep deprivation, however, may be that it is contributing to the obesity epidemic.


    Recent research has shown that individuals who are not getting enough sleep are more likely to be obese than their well rested counterparts. There are a number of theories regarding why this may be the case.

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    Firstly, sleep deprivation appears to alter the balance of two critical hormones that control appetite and satiety. Leptin and ghrelin are two important hormones whose roles are still not well understood, but are believed to control your appetite. Leptin is produced by fat cells and tells your brain that you are full and should stop eating. Ghrelin is a hormone that is produced by stomach cells and tells your brain that you are hungry and should eat. It has been found that, in sleep deprived individuals, the levels of leptin are decreased while the levels of ghrelin are increased. The balance is tipped in favor of hunger and one is likely to eat more. A significant amount of research is being done with novel compounds that may block the effects of ghrelin and augment the effects of leptin.


    Secondly, individuals who are sleep deprived tend to eat more of the wrong high calorie/high fat foods. If you talk to anyone who works irregular hours such as shift workers, I myself being one, you will find that late night snacks are quite commonplace. If you are awake at 3 o'clock in the morning, it's a lot easier to grab a slice of cake or handful of cookies instead of preparing yourself a salad or healthier alternative.


    Sleep is an underestimated pleasure- and necessity. Further, lack of it can be dangerous. In today's world of always- on-the- go overbooked family schedules, it's easy to short shrift yourself of valuable sleep. Keep in mind, however, that denying yourself sleep may, in the long term, do more damage to your health than you think. While more research needs to be done regarding the relationship between sleep deprivation and obesity, it appears quite clear that the two are linked. Not only in a secondary sense, where people tend to sneak unhealthier foods when up at off hours, but in a more direct sense as the link to the hormones leptin and ghrelin are beginning to show. Don't wait for the research to confirm the exact nature of the link. Start making sleep a more important priority in your life, like exercise and eating right. The best road to health and fitness should be a multi-faceted approach. Talk to your primary care provider about proper sleep hygiene and whether you may benefit from medications and/ or other strategies to improve sleep habits.

Published On: January 22, 2009