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Sleep Deprivation and Weight Gain

by Mahmood I. Siddique, D.O., FACP, FCCP, FAASM (WHF Special Report 2007-06)

Scientists have found that sleep deprivation increases levels of a hunger hormone the effects of which may lead to overeating and weight gain. It could explain why so many Americans who are chronically sleep-deprived also are overweight. And it could be part of the reason sleepy college students, new parents and shift workers pack on pounds.

We know the obesity epidemic is due to overeating - big portions, rich food and very little activity - but why do we crave too much of these rich foods? It may be because we are sleep-deprived and unable to curb our appetites. In fact an estimated 63% of American adults do not get the recommended eight hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. In fact, the average adult gets 6.9 hours of sleep on weeknights and 7.5 hours on weekends, for a daily average of seven hours. There are 80 types of sleep disorders of which a common and frequently undiagnosed one is sleep apnea that is linked to obesity.

Sleep deprivation activates a small part of the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that also is involved in appetite regulation. A critical hormone involved in regulating food intake is known as leptin. During sleep, leptin levels normally rise. But leptin levels are also markedly dependent on sleep duration.

During periods of sleep deprivation low leptin levels tell the brain there is a shortage of food and increase appetite. Indeed, researchers at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, examined the effect of sleep deprivation on this hormone and found that sleep-deprived men who had the biggest hormonal changes also said they felt the most hungry and craved carbohydrate-rich foods, including cakes, candy, ice cream, pasta and bread. Those who had the smallest changes reported being the least hungry.

Reducing Weight by Treating Sleep Problems

Sometimes the best way to treat obesity can be to treat an underlying sleep problem such as sleep apnea, of which a major symptom is snoring. For example, successful treatment of sleep apnea {usually with nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)} may reduce sleepiness and then motivate one to effectively lose weight, which will in turn help the obesity and the sleep apnea. So if you are overweight or obese and sleep poorly or feel tired during the day, what should you do?

  1. Talk to your primary care clinician about a referral to a sleep center in order to get a diagnosis.

  2. After determining the diagnosis, discuss with your healthcare provider undertaking a weight loss plan.

  3. After losing at least 10% of your body weight, consider undertaking another sleep study to determine further treatment.

Note: This is part two of a five-part series of short articles on sleep and health. In the next newsletter Dr. Siddique's article will be titled "Cardiovascular Consequences of Sleep Deprivation".

About the Author: Dr. Siddique is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at UMDNJ- Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Medical Director of the SleepCare Center at RWJ Hamilton. He is also the President of the Institute for Sleep and Lung Diseases. He is board certified in Internal, Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine. He has received multiple “Excellence in Teaching” awards at RWJ Medical School. He was selected to be on the peer-nominated Best Doctors list in Better Living magazine in NJ. He is also co-author of the book, “How to Turn Anger into Love” (www.HowToTurnAngerIntoLove.com). He can be reached at: (609)587-9944; www.sleephealthdoc.com. _____________________________________________________________________

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