Can You Burn Fat While You Sleep?
After driving from coast to coast fueled by plenty of strong coffee, it’s been nice to take my foot off the gas and catch up on some solid shut-eye.
Sacrificing sleep is something that “just happens,” but I feel this is a good opportunity to talk about one of the most overlooked subjects in our lifestyle – sleep.
So take a second to ask yourself, “How did I sleep last night?”
If the answer isn’t “Awesome!”, then keep reading.
For better or worse, we live in a culture that praises hard work—oodles of it. We idolize those people who never sleep, who seem to thrive on five hours rest followed by a 4am workout, who are always lurching from one huge accomplishment to the next.
But does busier really mean better?
What Happens When You’re Busy Sleeping
Your night is composed of two parts—NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which makes up ¾ of your sleep period; and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which occurs in the last ¼ of sleep.
NREM Stages One and Two: You drift between waking and sleeping as you disengage from your surroundings. Your heart rate evens out to a steady, slow beat and your body temperature drops.
NREM Stages Three and Four: This is the deepest, most restorative sleep. Your heart rate is very low, and blood moves to your muscles—repairing and growing new tissue. Hormones are released that are essential to muscle growth, as well as mood and appetite regulation.
REM Stage 5: Your muscles turn off and energy is supplied to your body and brain—this is like recharging your batteries. It provides the focus and energy you need for the following day… and this is also the time when you dream.
REM sleep occurs about 90 minutes after you fall asleep, and then cycles back every 90 minutes or so throughout the night—with longer periods of REM sleep as the cycle progresses.
Most adults should shoot for at least 7 – 9 hours of good quality sleep every night.
Alyson and I sleep 8-9 hours just about every night. Getting solid shut-eye is honestly one of the highest priorities in our lives.
How Sleep Deprivation Makes You Fat
When sleep is restricted for less than a week, your body stops producing the essential hormones that regulate your appetite. Here are a few of those key players and how their production (or lack thereof) contributes to weight gain:
Cortisol – Normally, cortisol levels drastically decrease at your “regular” bed time, and then slowly increase throughout the sleep cycle so that you wake in the morning feeling energized. However, when you undergo just short of a week’s sleep deprivation, cortisol levels have a hard time coming down at bed time.
This hormonal change leads to insulin resistance. Since insulin is the hormone that regulates how well cells use glucose, resistance to insulin is a major risk factor in developing obesity and diabetes.
Growth Hormone (GH) – The altered rate of GH secretion during periods of sleep deprivation also has an adverse effect on insulin-resistance and glucose tolerance.
Leptin – Leptin is a hormone release by fat cells as a signal to the brain that you are full. Recent studies in humans reflect what we already knew about animals—those who are sleep deprived are unable to effectively regulate the release of this hormone, which simulates a state of famine accompanied by a marked increase in appetite.
Ghrelin – Ghrelin is like the opposite of leptin—it’s the appetite stimulant… and (surprise!), ghrelin levels jump up when you’re sleep-deprived.
So, to put it simply: Cutting back on sleep sends your cortisol and growth hormones out of whack, decreases leptin production, and increases ghrelin production. This deadly combo leads your body to believe it’s in a state of famine– you become ravenous, gain weight, and predispose yourself to diabetes.
How To Sleep Better
You probably already sort of knew that getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep each night isn’t good for you… and now you also know how it makes you gain weight… but you’re frustrated because you just can’t fall asleep!
You toss and turn and wish the sandman would come sprinkle some magic dust in your eyes. But he doesn’t come, and you are left staring at the ceiling.
Here are a few sleep hacks to help you catch more fat-burning, muscle-building, appetite-controlling Z’s.
- Get sun early in the day—this will help reset your circadian rhythm, your body’s hormone-production clock. I walk the dog or do a quick workout outside in the sun most days.
- Feast after sunset to kick in the “rest and digest” mode and slow cortisol production. Including wild caught salmon as part of that feast will also help reduce cortisol levels.
- Avoid caffeine after noon (I stop drinking caffeine after 3pm).
- Avoid electronics (including television and computers) a couple hours before hitting the sack… and keep them out of your bedroom if possible. If you must be in front of a screen, try blue-blocking optics like Swannies, Gunnar or Ra Optics glasses – I wear them most nights.
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark to help you slip into deeper sleep faster.
- Avoid cortisol-spiking processed foods at all costs.
- Try Melatonin. If you still have trouble clearing your mind and getting to sleep, experiment with Melatonin. Start with 1-3 mg around bedtime or about an hour or two before bed. If you don’t notice any effect, try taking it before your nightly meal. But be warned, you will be very ready for bed after your meal.
Finally, I urge you to slow down a little bit.
Lay in the hammock, stretch out on the lawn, watch the clouds roll by, people watch on a bench in the park, take up knitting… anything that makes you feel at peace and helps you slow down is time well spent.
If you have a hard time simply doing “nothing,” try some of these restful and restorative activities:
- Walking (with or without your dog)
- Tai Chi
- Floating / Taking a Bath
- Bike riding
- Reading for pleasure
- Playing music
You’ll find that idle time and the time you spend sleeping are not wasted hours.
When you sleep well and restore balance to your life, you become more productive in your work and you’re your workouts.
A good night’s sleep and regular time set aside for relaxation work to restore your energy, firm and repair your muscles, sharpen your mind, and help you melt away fat faster.
If you’ve ever wondered why some people seem to shed fat and build muscle with ease while others feverishly exercise and grind day and night, know that those of us who sleep the most get the best results.
Sleep well, friends, you deserve it.
Good post, how about those of us that work grave yards 3-4 days a week. My first work day is on Saturday night starting at 7:30pm. Usually on that day I’m up by 9am, awake all day then all night. Any tips on recovering ony off days?
@Matt…I recently started working nights (just about a year ago) and the adjustment process was a bit brutal for me. I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours when I first started. Creating a dark space has been essential. It helps SO much. I have blackout curtains and an eye mask & ear plugs. Now I go to bed and sleep for a solid 7-8 hours for the most part…some days only 5-6 if anxiety kicks in. I tend to wake up a bit earlier on my last night of work…I’ll go to bed at 5AM and wake up at 11AM. That way, I am tired by 1 or 2 AM on that first day and try to sleep as much as I can that night. Often commitments get in the way, but I really try to store up my sleep hours on the days that I don’t work.
I’d also try to wake up a little later on your first day of work, although that can be hard. Otherwise you’re starting your week sleep deprived and fighting to catch up while working long hours…not easy to do!
I think I will try the tip of being conscious about getting sunlight first thing in the morning. Eating breakfast and drinking coffee in the sun on the patio sounds wonderful. Thanks for the tip Abel!
I am retired, 60, and sleep 8 to 9 great hours a night. I can’t lose the belly fat even with clean eating, daily walking and lifting weights 3x a week. My metabolism is slow and hormones out of whack. Sleep is not enough.
I have the exact same problem! I would love it if Abel would write some blog posts for women. Half of his podcast listeners are women. We need some good advice!
Have you gotten food allergy tested and/or eliminated likely inflammation foods like grains and sugar?
@matt this involves much more intense regulation on tour on days step one is buy blue light blocking glasses and use them when you start leaving work until you fall asleep you may have to keep them on while you sleep. Use blackout curtains and one your Windows use a darkening film. Your room much be pitch black when you sleep. When you wake up get some sunlight to reset your circadian rhythm and eat breakfast lunch and dinner in conjunction with your work hours example breakfast b4 work lunch at work dinner after. This will help you get better rest on your days you do work nights
Ha ha ha ha.
-mother of 5 under 8
Kathy, if you haven’t already, look into the kerogenic diet. If you have fat to lose, keto will get you there! Love the article Abel!
I think you may have accessed ionaccurate and outdated material on the stages of sleep. I believe, that the modification recently has been a reduction in some of the stages of sleep and the naming of them.
Abel—Thanks for this piece.
Shawn Stevenson (who you’ve had on your podcast) has some amazing resources on sleeping better. It was through him (through your podcast—of course) that I started to seriously consider a routine that revolves around a circadian rhythm and focuses on a “wind-down” evening routine emphasizing limited electronics, use of sweet potatoes as a the Paleo verson of our grandparents’ “glass of warm milk”, and even bought a few plants to keep in the bedroom. Works like a charm.
It’s a bit boring to talk about sleep, water, and walking/not sitting—a trifecta of good health—but it’s necessary. Posts about “Is a white potato Paleo?” probably get more traffic, but they miss the overall point. Thanks for keeping it honest.
The hardest thing about a sleep schedule is the prioritizing. As one commenter pointed out, being a parent or working long hours can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule. I mean, your livelihood and your children are more important than your sleep, right? But to your point, if you don’t sleep, your health suffers and you aren’t the best version of yourself to give to those around you. That’s a hard mindset to actually live. It slips away slowly and we wake up going, “What happened?”
Your hiatus pre WIld Diet, going off the grid (and staying there sometimes), is a real inspiration on how the need to unplug is vital. Not permanently, but frequently and sometimes prolonged if needed. It seems we’ve Krafted (see what I did there?) a system that doesn’t prioritize sleep, health, and happiness as pre-requisites for our lives. We’ve gotta do our best to change the mindset.
Thanks for the breakdown, specifically with regards to the hormones—the science always grounds the suggestions and makes them more real.
What about napping? How does or should that fit in? Is it restorative, or just restful? Helps or hurts?
While I was in the Army, napping was encouraged. Not while on duty mind you but the stress cycles can be brutal, even in a training environment. Not everyone enjoys 4 to 6 hours of sleep while in the field or deployed. As an MP, we went for days at a time with little to no sleep (someone still has to be on guard) running missions. If we could get back to a safe area, we would button up the truck and try to catch 15 minutes. Just 15 minutes made an incredible difference in performance. Whenever I napped more than that, I was actually more tired and out of sorts. I am sure some sleep therapist can give a reason to it.
I think the real question you need to ask yourself is why you need to nap. I know this sounds silly but if we listen to our bodies, they are telling us something is wrong. Have you been pushing to hard? To much stress? To many stimulants? Or just not enough sleep? To many people have to take something to wake you up and then something to put you to sleep, their body is practically screaming something is wrong.
I was instructed by “fitness experts in the Army” that sleeping slowed your metabolic rate. So napping during the day could limit the longer term affects of a workout. Instead of just staying up and having the affects carry on into the day. Not saying you are not getting any benefits, you are just limiting them. Of course that knowledge is from 1998, so I could be horribly wrong 🙂
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Terese Kahline says
Been working nights for 3+ years now. Gained 20lbs. Job is stressful, but I love it. Room is blacked out, wear eye mask, ear plugs, run fan, turn air conditioning on so it’s cold. Try to get 7+ hours of sleep but it is very disruptive (lots of tossing/turning). Tried melatonin, protein, carbs, various blends etc. Don’t eat sugar, wheat, processed crap. I workout with weights 3x week, do HIIT 2-3x week, walking or slow cardio 1-2x week. I also walk 4-6 miles each night at work (work 3 12-hour shifts each week). I’ve tried keto-only lost 3 pounds in first week then it stopped. Paleo-same thing. Now, I’m just cutting calories down to 1400 (i’m 53, 5’6″ 170 pounds). I used to weigh 130 pounds and have 18% bodyfat five years ago, now it’s 32%. Crazy!!!