Q&A: Sleep Deprivation and Fat Loss

Question:

Is lack of sleep making it hard for me to lose fat?

Answer:

Consistent sleep deprivation is strongly correlated with weight gain and risk of obesity, probably due to a combination of both physical and psychological factors.

Not getting enough sleep wreaks havoc with several key hormones involved in appetite and metabolism. It increases ghrelin and cortisol, while reducing leptin and growth hormone, which has the effect of increasing your appetite, reducing your metabolic rate, and promoting insulin resistance, abdominal fat storage, and loss of muscle. Even worse, sleep deprivation reduces your willpower making the increase in appetite more likely to cause you to overeat.

Lions sleeping - photograph by Michael Krom

Although I’ve been dealing with the problem of sleep deprivation and fat loss with clients for years I didn’t really appreciate just how much of an effect it has until I experienced it myself. During the first few months after our son was born I slept about half as many hours per night as I normally do. Despite not making a conscious change in my diet I put on a noticeable amount of fat while my workout performance steadily worsened. Once I was able to resume normal sleep hours the fat came off and workout performance improved rapidly.

Clients who do not sleep as many hours consistently have a much harder time losing fat than those who do, and restructuring their schedule to get more sleep always improves their results. If you want to lose fat you should make getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night a priority.

Schedule it like you would your workouts, and try to go to sleep and wake up at consistent times. Like exercise and nutrition, the quality of your sleep is as important as the quantity, and you should try to optimize that as well. The room you sleep in should be dark, quiet, and cool, and you should get the most comfortable mattress you can afford. Reserve your bed for sleep and sex, and read, watch television, or use the computer in another room to minimize distractions from sleep.

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18 Responses to Q&A: Sleep Deprivation and Fat Loss

  1. Pete Collins December 4, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    Makes sense Drew

    I love that supporting photograph you used…..Bravo!!

  2. Brian Liebler December 5, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Drew,
    During my mid 50′s I noticed that I really did not sleep very well anymore. I would be awake after 3 to 4 hrs. and then lie there for quite some time (sometimes dozing on and off for hrs) . Now that I have reached 60 this condition seems worse. As you stated this really has an effect on diet as I almost crave sugar and carbs just to keep going all day. I have read and tried everything and the only conclusion I have accepted is as you become older everything slows down so much we just do not sleep very intense and as long as we did when we were young.
    This also is true with the amount I eat and the frequency of training. In my 20′s thru my 30′s it was Nautilus Circuit 12 exercises 3X wk followed by large meals with 7 to 8 hrs sleep.
    I’m in great shape as I’m told for a 61 yr old but that’s just it, I’m over 60.

    • Drew Baye December 5, 2013 at 8:38 am #

      Brian,

      I suspect age-related hormonal changes have a lot to do with this, as hormone replacement therapy has been shown to improve sleep in men and women.

  3. Zidan December 5, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    I’ve never been able to consistently get enough sleep every night for more than a week. I always wake up in the middle of the night or just can’t fall asleep quick enough. I’m 15 years old right now so it may be due to puberty or some kind of hormonal “issue”. Because of this, I’ve been experimenting with napping in the middle of the day for about 2 hours (or however long it lasts). This kind of sleeping pattern seems to better fit into my daily schedule and I seem to be getting just enough sleep surprisingly. I definitely feel a lot better. This had led more to wonder however. Will this affect my gains in muscle and strength? I’m pretty sure it wont but is one sleep session better than multiple sessions (or vice versa)?

    NO NEED TO READ THIS PART if you don’t want to, as it’s irrelevant but: Is there any scientific study/evidence that shows a correlation between weight lifting and a reduction in overall growth in height, in adolescents? When I first bought my barbell and plates my dad told me it will stunt my growth. I ignored his warning because every time I asked someone why they think weight lifting stunts growth, they say “because every one says so, so it must be true”, or something like that. I thought and still think it’s a myth. Eventually he left me alone probably because he thought I would get lazy and give up. But earlier today I broke my PR on the shoulder press at 50kg and he flipped out. I need a way to stop his (and the rest of my family’s) concern. Every time I try to research this question on the internet, I always end up reading an article that says “there has been a scientific study that suggests weight lifting actually promotes growth”, BUT NEVER MENTIONS THE ACTUAL SPECIFIC STUDY! GAH! Do you have any suggestions? Thanks for reading my oversized question.

    • Drew Baye December 10, 2013 at 9:38 am #

      Zidan,

      It is a myth that weight lifting will stunt your growth. The concern is damage to the growth plates, but if you use proper form you are not going to damage them or otherwise injure yourself. If anything, the acute hormonal effects may have a small positive effect on growth.

      • Zidan December 10, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

        Thanks for replying.

        “but if you use proper form” So that means bad form will stunt growth. Got it, but bad form would only do that because of the damage it can cause to the growth right? Does lower back pain after deadlifts indicate such damage? I’m not feeling major pain that causes discomfort, I can just feel a very subtle but sharp pain occur when I arch my back or if I get into a proper deadlift position. I only feel this pain after the workout, and a few days beyond the workout. It also doesn’t feel like muscle soreness – it’s different so I’m not sure if I might be damaging the plates there. Have you ever experienced this? Again, apologies if I make my questions too long.

        • Drew Baye December 10, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

          Zidan,

          Bad form is not certain to stunt growth, it just increases your risk of damaging your growth plates which may stunt growth. These are near the ends of your long bones, not in your spine.
          You should feel a gradual burning in the muscles used in an exercise but not anything sharp or sudden, either during or after the workout. If you’re feeling something sharp or sudden before or after I recommend backing off on the weight and paying better attention to your form the next time, and if that doesn’t help it lay off the exercise for a while before trying again. If you’re still having pain after laying off for a week or more have a doctor check it out.

          • Zidan January 4, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

            Drew,

            I took a 2 week break from conventional deadlifts and started looking at myself in a mirror doing them with a light weight (side view). I’m guessing the problem came from the diameter of my weight plates. They’re small, so it was kind of like a deficit deadlift. I decided to switch to sumo deadlifts and yeah, it’s more of a minor soreness now. Thanks.

            • Drew Baye January 17, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

              Zidan,

              You’re welcome. I don’t recommend turning your head during deadlifts, though. Your head and neck should remain neutral throughout the exercise.

  4. Mal December 6, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    Wise words as usual Drew. Shift work also creates havoc with our hormones and metabolisim, should be avoided at all costs if possible

  5. Mark Lloyd December 7, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    And, of course, an excellent hormone “therapy” : Intense exercise :-); which leads to my question: If one’s too tired to exercise due to sleep deprivation, could exercising -anyway- , (disregarding any notion of progress for the moment), perhaps break the cycle of sleeplessness? At a few weeks short of 65yrs old, I now work out fiercely for only 8-12min, 1xWk, & find this to greatly help my sleep.

    • Drew Baye December 9, 2013 at 10:21 am #

      Mark,

      In many cases it would probably help, but it would depend on the severity and cause of sleep deprivation.

  6. Gaucho December 15, 2013 at 8:53 am #

    Drew,

    Are you saying that beceause you where sleeping less than normal and your dieet remained roughly the same you lost muscle mass and gained fat and also that your workouts performance steadily worsened? If so, would it be a solution if you just added a couple of days more rest to let your body supercompensate per workout? Or are there more things of interest?

    I read a couple of studies about weight gaining in periods of less sleep. I understand the effects of hormones like cortisol, but if you eat the same amount of calories and let’s say your lifestlye remains completely the same, how come you’re body can add more fat tissue? The human can’t just make 2 calories out of 1 calorie when you sleep less than normal, right?

    • Drew Baye December 15, 2013 at 11:53 am #

      Gaucho,

      I didn’t say my diet remained roughly the same, I said I did not make “a conscious change in my diet”. I was not tracking my eating at the time and suspect the lack of sleep contributed to an increase in appetite and food intake, which contributed to the fat gain. The point is that among the other things sleep deprivation can increase appetite and lead to overeating.

      • Gaucho December 15, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

        Okay. I understand. I have clients who sometimes claim that when they stop smoking they gain wheight, but “absolutely did not start eating more”. This is kind of the same thing as when you get to less sleep, right? Your body starts producing more hormones which increase appetite…

        • Drew Baye December 15, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

          Gaucho,

          This is part of it, but in addition to being an appetite suppressant nicotine increases metabolism, so quitting would both increase appetite and decrease metabolic rate. Also, most people have no idea how much they actually eat. Unless they were weighing or measuring and keeping track of their food intake the entire time they don’t know whether they are eating the same, and are probably not.

    • Darin December 27, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

      “The human can’t just make 2 calories out of 1 calorie”

      It isn’t about creating calories out of whole cloth. It is about how the body regulates energy in response to stress.

  7. Steven Turner December 19, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    A great thanks for all your efforts in providing a website that provides invaluable information on proper exercise.

    Also a great XMAS and happy New Year to you and your family.
    Thanks
    Steven

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