Sleep, Cravings, and Body Composition

Leslie Uffman Aguilar
March 4, 20210 Comment

Did you know sleep seemingly has a large impact on cravings, appetite, body fat, and more? It’s also important for health in other ways.

Episode: Feel Rested: How to Follow your Body’s Rhythms and Get Better Sleep


33% of the population gets fewer than 6.5 hours of sleep per night, AND I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that parents with young children represent a disproportionate amount of those! And did you know that studies suggest that those who get less than 6 hours of sleep per night gain almost twice as much weight over a 6 year period as people who sleep 7-8 hours per night. Getting tons of sleep isn’t so great either as those who sleep more than 9 hours had similar body compositions as those who get fewer than 6 hours.  (But I’m going to guess that there aren’t many moms of little kids complaining about too much sleep.)  And as I mentioned on the mini episode, lack of sleep is one of the number one drivers of craving carby, sugary, fatty snack foods.

Now, I’ve talked about sleep on a different podcast, but that one was more about sleep drives and how it works, I’ll link that show notes because it’s really interesting, but today’s episode is more about practical steps to take, with a touch of info from a few studies. I can’t help it y’all!  I know I love studies! And these were eye-opening!

We parents all love to say it’s always our children that keep us from getting the sleep that we so desire, the truth is, most of us do a lot of it to ourselves. And it’s a purely modern problem, because it didn’t use to be so convenient to put off sleep to watch TV, browse the internet, or go out and do things. When we had to tend fires or burn candles to keep light going and we didn’t have screens at all, it seems less convenient to just push off sleep for no reason.

And lack of sleep can majorly throw off our bodily systems.  In fact, there’s evidence that some of the current obesity stats are related to chronic sleep deprivation, which we usually inflict upon ourselves.  Additionally, sleep debt is cumulative, so the longer you’re going with not quite enough, the bigger the toll.   And lack of sleep is related to higher levels of heart attack and stroke as well as insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, and type 2 diabetes.  Does that convince you how important sleep is? I honestly had no idea until I was studying for health coaching and sleep is right there with nutrition and exercise for health.

One example of this connection between sleep and obesity is that lack of sleep can throw your hunger hormones out of whack.  Consider that a study with 12 young, healthy, normal-weight men found that just two nights in a row with 4 hours of sleep (and no napping) resulted in lower levels of leptin (the fullness hormone) and higher levels of ghrelin (the hungry hormone). So low leptin and high ghrelin are both stimulating hunger and appetite, so the men reported higher overall hunger ratings, but especially cravings for energy dense, processed foods like sweets, baked goods and bread.  They wanted that quick energy, which makes sense, because your body is low on energy since it didn’t get fully charged while sleeping.  It’s like it needs a quick dose of it, and breads, sweets, and snacks like chips are pretty much the fastest way to get it. So scientists are speculating that wonky appetite hormones could be another reason that sleep deprivation results in gaining body fat. 

And while we’re talking about hormones, remember that that study was all men. And in most studies around fasting and hunger, women’s hormones get affected faster and greater than men’s.

Another study had eleven healthy men in their 20s, and they were only allowed 4 hours of sleep for six straight nights. By the end, the men had the insulin sensitivity of a 70 year old with impaired glucose tolerance (which is what we used to call pre-diabetes)! Yes, it’s a small sample size with only eleven men, but those results are still astounding.

Hopefully, you’re convinced that prioritizing sleep is important.  And look, I get it, sleep is a struggle when you’ve got little ones.  Because you usually just want some time in the evenings to yourself.  It’s nice to not be constantly taking care of someone else for a little bit, and so you want to stay up and relax and enjoy it. I totally get that, and if you’re getting a decent amount of sleep, you’re not reaching for caffeine and sugar foods to get through the day, and you feel like you’ve got a good amount of energy, then maybe you don’t need to change anything. 

But if you know you’d like some more and you want more energy and less cravings, there’s a lot of benefits from prioritizing it.

So let’s talk about some ways to make that easier.

  • Regular exercise promotes good sleep. This is one of the most important things you can do to promote staying asleep.  Which makes sense, when you’re physically fatigued, you sleep deeper and longer.  And I know that I always struggle to fall asleep if I don’t get some cardio.  I love strength training and mat work, I do, but nothing gets me all over tired like running, cycling, or swimming.  Try to keep the more intense exercise to at least three hours before bed, but restorative mat or mobility routines can be done closer to bedtime. 
  • Try to get some time outside in natural light, which you can totally do since you’re out exercising anyway. It helps establish your circadian rhythm.
  • Only drink caffeine in the morning. And be aware that caffeine is in some unsuspecting places like decaf coffee (it still has a little), tea, and chocolate. Talk about caffeine tolerance levels. . .
  • Avoid screen time before bed, and I know this one is super hard when you’re catching up on this after the kids are in bed.  So you might look into blue-light blocking glasses, and at least adjust your settings to a dimmer image so it’s not so stimulating.
  • Try to go to bed neither full nor hungry. 
  • Try to keep a regular sleep schedule, it’s good for your babies, and it’s good for you for the same reasons!
  • Wait until you’re comfortably tired to go to bed.  You don’t want to be lying in bed for a long time and training yourself that you stay awake in it. Do something relaxing that’ll prep you for rest.
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. This could include a warm bath or shower, a foot massage, reading, restorative mat routines, or anything else that relaxes you. 
  • Make your room quiet, comfortable, cool, and clean.
    • This is where you get your rest, and women have been shown to get stressed by clutter and mess. There was a Stanford study that tested cortisol levels as women walked around the house, and it went up with cluttered spaces (for women only). So I always encourage that if you’ve got a room where you move your mess to, (we all have them!) don’t make it your master bedroom.  That’s really common to do, but you can always pick somewhere else to become your mess room. I have a walk-in closet that pretty much everything gets tossed in at the end of the day if I don’t have all of it clean, because I just don’t rest well in a messy space, and I doubt you do either.
  • You may want some white noise, but other than that, keep it as quiet as you can.
  • And we typically sleep better at cooler temperatures, so you might even drop the thermostat as you go to bed.

Hopefully, this gets your mind going with some ideas to improve your sleep. I’m sure you know that there’s no comparison between feeling rested and not.  I remember the first time that I got over five hours of uninterrupted sleep with my first daughter, and I called my husband the next day to say it felt like a new lease on life! It was unbelievable how it changed my whole outlook.  But even if you’re not in the middle of the newborn stage, that doesn’t mean that we’re getting great sleep. 

So I just want to encourage you, do your best to make it a priority, BUT I don’t want to put more on your plate either. If you’re really not in a position to get optimal sleep, just consider if there are ways to make your sleep a little bit better.  Every little bit does count. And again sleep debt is cumulative, so a little bit more sleep every night for a month makes a big difference.

And the season of little sleep disruptors is short.  It doesn’t seem like it, but it is. So don’t feel guilty for what you can’t do right now, you’ll be able to eventually. And do be aware that when you’re tired and you get cravings, that that is normal.  And it’s probably your body just wanting extra energy, and when you know that, it’s easier to choose what’s going to ultimately be best for you and your energy levels.

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I remember I read an email once about hosting a great Thanksgiving, and it was suggested that you have your hair stylist come to your home that day because you don’t want to be rushing. Umm. . . what?  So yeah, this is all stuff that is applicable to anyone.

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Hi there!

I believe that we are all made in the image of God, and should respect and be grateful for our bodies.

A big part of that is moving regularly, eating nutritious food, and resting.  And I also believe that living a healthy lifestyle can and should be simple and enjoyable!

I combine my training as a postpartum exercise specialist, Pilates teacher, nutrition coach, health coach, and green beauty advocate to help you build a lifestyle that meets your needs and makes you feel great.

Things I love: Playing violin, reading, long stroller walks, The Office, and Batman