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.