The impact of sleep deprivation on your body

Dr Ben Kelly Head of Preventative Medicine Ben Kelly is a specialist in preventative medicine and leads the clinical research and digital health agendas for Nuffield Health. More by this author
If you’re not sleeping enough, the effects could be more significant that bags under your eyes. Head of Preventative Medicine, Dr Ben Kelly, explains how your size and your sleep are closely linked.

The rise of obesity over the last few decades is paralleled by significant reductions in the length of time we spend asleep.

At the same time, a large number of studies have reported associations between impaired sleep and the likelihood of developing obesity or diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

But let’s be clear. The act of sleeping less does not in itself make you fat – after a few disturbed nights your body won’t automatically have created fat.

We’re not talking about a cause/effect link here. We’re talking correlation. As the number of people getting less sleep has risen, so the number of people at risk of life-threatening metabolic and cardiovascular diseases has risen too.

The reason for this correlation may lie in the effects that poor or less sleep have on your behaviour and physiology. It’s these effects that can contribute to weight gain.

Inactivity – if you’re feeling lethargic and tired, you’re less likely to exercise and more likely to take shortcuts like using the lift rather than the stairs. This decreases the amount of calories you’re burning, which has a direct effect on your weight.

Mood fluctuations – sleep is vital to regulating your mood. Less sleep could see you happy one moment and feeling low the next. Low mood can trigger emotional or ‘comfort’ eating, when our bodies crave high fat, high sugar foods. When eaten, these foods trigger the pleasure response in your brain, and we’re hardwired to crave them in times of distress.

Reduced leptin levels – less of the hormone that tells you you’re full could see you overeating without realising it.

Increased grehlin (gray-lin) levels – more of the hormone that tells you you’re hungry will have you seeking out more food and snacks, even if you’ve consumed the right amount of food for you that day.

If you struggle to cope with these effects, it’s likely you’ll gain weight. And weight gain itself causes serious problems. As your body fat percentage increases, so does your risk of developing metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Equally, your cholesterol levels, blood pressure and other risk factors could increase to dangerous levels.

The simple solution is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. For adults, 7-8 hours of sleep per night in adults is associated with the lowest risk of incidence of cardiovascular diseases. See our tips for a good night’s sleep if you’re not sure where to start.

But if you’re struggling to achieve the full 7-8 hours of sleep per night due to factors you can’t control – a new baby, for example – make an extra effort to maintain a healthy diet and exercise programme.

  • If you really don’t have the energy for the gym, go for a brisk walk around the block to elevate your heart rate slightly
  • Eat three healthy meals a day with a couple of well-chosen snacks
  • Return to a regular sleep pattern as soon as you can.

If you've realised you're gaining weight and want to explore ways to tackle it, why not speak to a Nutritional Therapist?

Monday 5 June 2017