How Losing Sleep Can Cause You to Pack on the Pounds

Lack of sleep can lead to weight gain. Getty Images

If you’re looking for another reason to squeeze in more hours of sleep, you might want to pay attention to new research out of Sweden that suggests losing sleep may lead to weight gain.

Those who have chronic sleep problems, work irregular shift hours, or just burn the midnight oil looking at their smartphones could be running the risk of slowing down their metabolism.

The research was published in August in Science Advances.

The small observational study looked at 15 adults who were at normal weight and then had them go through two lab sessions. In one, they slept for eight hours. In the other, they were kept awake the entire night. After each session, researchers took tissue samples from the subcutaneous fat — the fat that rests under your skin — and skeletal muscle.

This was done because these tissues can show where the metabolism has been impacted by obesity and diabetes, for instance.

Blood samples were also taken.

Researchers found the people who lost a night of sleep displayed a tissue-specific shift in DNA methylation, a process that regulates gene expression. Those who got a normal night’s sleep, didn’t show this change

The researchers behind the study say that these findings could be significant in helping people better understand the adverse effects sleep loss can have on a person’s body and overall health.

Sleep’s impact on the metabolism

“Basically, we looked genome-wide at changes in DNA methylation marks, primarily surveying areas where transcription (i.e., expression) of genes is initiated in our DNA molecules. After overnight wakefulness, compared with after normal sleep, we found changes in the DNA methylation of genes that have been associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as for genes that regulate adipose tissue function, such as how fat cells absorb circulating fatty acids,” lead author Dr. Jonathan Cedernaes, a researcher in the neuroscience department at Uppsala University, Sweden, wrote in an email to Healthline. “Since epigenetic changes are thought to be able to serve as a sort of ‘metabolic memory,’ we are excited that we, as the first group (to the best of our knowledge), have discovered these types of changes in adipose tissue as a result of simulated shift work.”

He added that adipose tissue is a key organ that is tied to many of the negative effects on the body that come from disrupted sleep and circadian rhythms. These findings are particularly relevant if you are someone who does shift-based work, showing that the disrupted sleep cycles that can come with working night shifts one day and a regular morning start the next, can really throw off your metabolism and increase your risk of obesity or type 2 diabetes.

“Changes in epigenetic state — such as in DNA methylation — regulate how genes should be turned on or off, and can both be inherited and altered by environment, but we are the first ones to show that sleep loss results in alterations in epigenetic state in key peripheral metabolic tissues,” Cedernaes wrote.

Aric A. Prather, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and Weill Institute for Neurosciences at University of California, San Francisco, told Healthline that while some previous studies have looked at how sleep loss can lead to changes in the metabolic hormones tied to a person’s weight, this study takes it a step further.

“Results from this study provide new insights into the multitude of molecular mechanisms through which sleep loss can affect metabolism and potentially weight gain,” said Prather, who was not part of this research.

There has been a lot in the news lately about the impact sleep — and the lack of it — can have on our lives.

In our constant, on-the-go culture where our devices keep us connected to media and entertainment at any hour, it can feel as though we have to fit sleep into our busy schedules.

However, doctors say it really should be the other way around.

A domino effect on your health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the amount of sleep that our bodies need varies by age.

An infant at 4- to 12-months old needs about 12 to 16 hours of sleep, including regular naps, every 24 hours. By the time that child grows to a teen, they need 8 to 10 hours of sleep. The average adult — 18 to 60 — is recommended to have 7 or more hours each day.

“We need to send the message to people that they should not accept sleep deprivation as a standard factor of life, or a condition that they will eventually just be able to overcome,” Dr. Alon Avidan, MPH, professor and vice chair in the department of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), told Healthline. “You cannot essentially just get used to sleep deprivation, you cannot borrow sleep and pay it off on the weekends. If you do that, then it comes at a very high interest rate.”

Avidan, who is also the director of UCLA’s Sleep Disorders Center, said that if you are experiencing disruptions in your daily sleep, you need to consult your primary care physician. Don’t let it wait.

He said not getting enough sleep can have a domino effect on your health and life in general.

“You should not wait to have an accident or get involved with a dispute because you are tired. You should not wait to the point where you are unable to attend your classes or you have issues with your relationships,” Avidan stressed. “People need to start looking for solutions right away that involves their primary care physician looking for potential causes and finding potential solutions. It’s about taking the simple initiative over your health and knowing that the status quo is not acceptable.”

One 2017 review looked at a range of studies to paint a picture of the health impacts of long-term sleep disruption on a person’s health. The authors found a range of short-term effects like the presence of mood disorders and disruptions in a person’s memory and cognition. Serious long-term problems that were tied to poor sleep habits included heart disease and hypertension.

For Avidan, he sees people all-too-often dismiss sleep as not crucial to their health. He cautioned that we need to stop taking it lightly. Getting your nightly shut-eye should be essential.

“The implications of this new study further confirm that sleep deprivation is a ticking bomb,” Avidan said. “Its impacts might not be on the surface, they might not be very visible, but sleep deprivation could be manifesting itself in a number of negative ways, physically, emotionally, and as this new research shows, on the cellular level.”

Staring at the blue light emitted from your laptop or mobile devices at night can throw off your circadian rhythm. Getty Images

Throwing off your body’s internal clock

Cedernaes said that this study was supposed to examine “acute” sleep loss, hoping to mimic the impacts that overnight shift work could have on someone’s sleep patterns.

Nevertheless, while his research just looks at one night of sleep loss, it points to what could happen if you started losing sleep on a more regular basis.

“When you look at someone who’s skipped an entire night of sleep like this, and compare it with data we have for people who skip two half-nights of sleep (so, they are losing the same hours of sleep in total but over different timescales), their insulin sensitivity goes down to the same extent,” he added. “From other research, we know that the adverse consequences can be different between acute versus chronic sleep disruption.”

Can we simply “reboot” our sleep schedule if we start experiencing a series of sleepless nights?

“It is possible that a single night of recovery sleep can restore most of the changes we observed. However, it may be that such recovery sleep needs to occur at ‘normal’ times of the night, as more and more research is suggesting that sleep that occurs during the daytime — otherwise, for most people, at the ‘wrong time’ of our 24-hour day — is less restorative and deregulates inflammation, possibly because our bodies have a harder time [getting] to sleep during the daytime,” he wrote.

He added that sleep differs from person to person. But whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, our circadian rhythms have been programmed to enable sleep during the night when it’s dark.

“Sleeping during the day thus risks being completely out of sync with our circadian rhythms,” Cedernaes wrote.

The bottom line

If you don’t get enough sleep and are now worrying about your waistline, Prather said that your concern is justified. Sleep loss has been shown to cause alterations in satiety hormones, feelings of hunger, and can lead you to crave fatty comfort foods.

“Insufficient sleep is also associated with limited physical activity. If someone is experiencing poor sleep, one thing to keep in mind is that he or she will probably be experiencing more cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods than normal, and should try to keep good substitutes around like fruit to reduce their comfort food intake,” he said.

Avidan also pointed out that we need to limit the time we spend on our phones.

Research has shown that staring at the blue light emitted from your laptops and mobile devices at night can throw off that circadian rhythm. His simple advice: “Put away the device, turn it off, keep it away from your bed.”

This is such a problem that it even led tech giant Apple to include “Night Shift” mode on its devices — the opportunity to change the light shining from your screen from circadian-disrupting blue to a more sleep-conducive orange hue at night.

For his part, Cedernaes said that he and his team are looking at whether there are “countermeasures” that a person can use to counteract the impact a lack of sleep can have on the metabolism.

Avidan added that being active during the day, eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, and seeking out medical advice for issues such as insomnia, are all keys to getting a good night’s sleep.