Sleep Loss and Weight Gain

low section view of a man standing on a weight scale
Trouble losing weight? Maybe it’s your sleep habits!

Managing your weight can be a challenge. Life gets in the way. Food choices get in the way. Working out, well, it doesn’t always work out, does it?

Maybe you’ve found a way to eat right and exercise that fits your lifestyle and actually works for you.

Maybe you’re well on your way to your goal weight and physique, and to feeling great.

But if you’re working to get all the other pieces in order and you still can’t lose weight, or you’re actually gaining weight, your sleep habits may be (partly) to blame.

We know from years of research that getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night significantly increases your metabolism and RMR – the number of calories you burn while doing nothing. We also learned that people who suffer chronic sleep loss or engage in shift work have a higher risk for obesity and type 2 Diabetes than others who do not. We also knew that disrupted sleep had a negative effect on body mass, reducing lean mass and increasing fat mass.

What we didn’t know is what a team at Uppsala University in Sweden just found out.

Apparently, missing just one night of sleep can disrupt your metabolism by altering tissue-specific gene expression that regulates it. So it doesn’t take much to disrupt your metabolism and body at the molecular level.

Researchers studied 15 otherwise healthy people of normal weight. Meals and activity were standardized for all. Then, in random order, they were allowed one full night sleep, followed by one night of full wakefulness.

In the mornings after each, tissue samples from subcutaneous fat and skeletal muscle were taken from each participant. Blood samples were also used to check blood sugar, amino acids, fatty acids and other metabolites.

When seeking evidence of metabolic problems, muscle and fat tissue are the standard for finding evidence. Disruptions in their distribution or condition can tell researchers much about what’s happening in the body and metabolism.

Specifically, they were looking for data to help them map out DNA Methylation. DNA Methylation is a way to measure gene expression, or how and when certain genes get “switched” on or off. Methylation can be impacted by hereditary factors, but is also impacted by environmental and behavioral factors like diet, exercise and exposure to toxins or chemicals.

They found a specific gene expression that was tissue-specific. Study Lead Author Jonathan Cedernaes, MD, Phd., said “Our new findings indicate that sleep loss causes tissue-specific changes to the degree of DNA methylation in genes spread throughout the human genome. We therefore think that the changes we have observed in our new study can constitute another piece of the puzzle of how chronic disruption of sleep and circadian rhythms may impact the risk of developing for example obesity.”

Cedernaes acknowledged that the study, while scientifically designed, was limited by the fact they only studied results after one night. So they can’t assess the damage from chronic sleep disruption or circadian rhythm misalignment.

He was, however, clear about his thoughts on their findings “We also noted changes in skeletal muscle levels of proteins involved [in] handling blood glucose, and this could help explain why the participants’ glucose sensitivity was impaired following sleep loss. Taken together, these observations may provide at least partial mechanistic insight as to why chronic sleep loss and shift work can increase the risk of adverse weight gain as well as the risk of type 2 diabetes.”

More research is apparently in the works. “It will be interesting to investigate to what extent one or more nights of recovery sleep can normalize the metabolic changes that we observe at the tissue level as a result of sleep loss,” Cedernaes said.

“Diet and exercise are factors that can also alter DNA Methylation, and these factors can thus possibly be used to counteract adverse metabolic effects of sleep loss.”

A small study sample, well-executed. A limited time frame with clearly defined empirical results. There is no doubt about the reality that sleep matters. Anyone who has missed a night’s sleep knows that.

Now, we have more evidence to back up it’s role in weight loss, weight management, metabolism and physique. So, if weight loss, fat loss or physique improvement is a goal, make sure you get your zzz’s!

Keep the faith and keep after it!



Journal Reference:

  1. Cedernaes, J., et al., Acute sleep loss results in tissue-specific alterations in genome-wide DNA methylation state and metabolic fuel utilization in humans, Science Advances, Aug 22, 2018

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