Dr. Doni, author of The Stress Remedy, discusses how weight gain and sleep apnea can disrupt your sleep and offers advice on how to address both issues.
Why insomnia makes us fat
Studies reveal that when we don’t sleep, our hormones become imbalanced, specifically the hormones that manage hunger, appetite (leptin and ghrelin), and blood sugar (insulin) 1. This means that when you don’t get enough sleep you are more likely to feel hungry, which leads you to eat more (especially filling carbohydrates). And, because your insulin levels are also disrupted and therefore less able to manage the extra carbs and resulting sugars, you are more likely to gain weight – which, in turn, makes inflammation and diabetes more likely2,3. You can read more about blood sugar and sleep here.
Cortisol is another key hormone that makes weight gain more likely when you don’t sleep. Cortisol levels are elevated at night in people who don’t sleep and that increase is associated with decreased insulin function and increased weight gain4. Read more about cortisol and sleep here.
So, insomnia leads to weight gain, but at the same time weight gain makes it harder to get a good night’s sleep. Additionally, weight gain is associated with sleep apnea which if untreated, increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression and headaches. Not only that, but sleep apnea also leads to weight gain5.
The good news is however, when you break this vicious cycle there is the potential for profound improvements in your health as well as for slimming your waistline. In fact, getting good sleep may be the best non-diet method for losing weight there is. So, in the interests of improving your sleep (and your waistline), let’s first look more closely at sleep apnea and how to address it before tackling weight gain – what causes it and what to do about it.
While it can seem that one would notice sleep apnea (essentially not breathing for between 10 and 20 seconds, sometimes hundreds of times a night) it is not uncommon to not be aware it’s happening. For some people, it occurs when the throat is blocked by extra tissue caused by too much weight (obstructive sleep apnea). For others, it is due to a signaling issue from the brain. Either way, sleep apnea disrupts your healthy sleep cycle, which means you’ll benefit less from sleep.
The best way to find out if you have sleep apnea is to have a sleep study at a specialty sleep clinic. They will be able to track your oxygen levels, sleep cycles and wake-up times amongst other things, and tell you whether you are experiencing sleep apnea.
You should request a sleep study if:
- You feel unrested when you wake in the morning and/or fatigued during the day
- The person you sleep with tells you your breathing changes as you sleep
- You have headaches or dry mouth when you wake in the morning
- Your memory is decreased, you are irritable or have frequent mood changes
- You wake frequently to urinate
- You snore
Although not everyone who experiences these has sleep apnea, these can be signs that sleep apnea is occurring.
If sleep apnea is found, then the sleep specialist will recommend a CPAP (continuous positive airflow pressure) machine (or another, similar, option) that provides a constant stream of air into your throat, keeping your breathing passages open while you sleep. Ultimately, however, the best way to deal with obstructive sleep apnea is to address the underlying cause. In many cases the best way to do this is to lose weight.
It’s one thing to notice that your clothes are fitting more tightly and that you’ve gained a bit of weight. it’s another thing to determine the cause so you can address it. So let’s talk a bit here about how to determine the cause of weight gain. While poor sleep plays a part in weight gain it is more complex than that. There are number of possible factors at play that can influence your weight and figuring out what they are is the best way to ensure successful weight loss.
How to determine the cause of your weight gain
The standard theory for many years has been that ‘calories in’ (ie: what you eat) should equal ‘calories out’ (ie: the amount of energy you burn) in order to maintain your current weight. Basically, the more you eat, the more energy you need to expend in order to avoid storage of those calories as body fat. This theory has some value for sure, but it does not allow for the effect of hormones (such as cortisol, thyroid function, and insulin), cellular metabolism, mitochondrial function, neurotransmitters, inflammatory messengers, leaky gut, and so on, that have an influence on whether you gain or lose weight.
To fully understand weight gain, we need to look at what I refer to as your four core systems – Digestion, Immune system, Hormones, and Nervous system – and at whether the three problems networks – Leaky Gut, Adrenal Distress, and Carbohydrate metabolism imbalances – have developed. You can read more about the four core systems and three problem networks here.
Once we know which of the networks is causing problems for you we then have a clear path and can make a weight loss plan that is individualized to you, rather than taking a cookie-cutter approach.
Addressing weight gain by balancing hormones and decreasing inflammation
As we saw at the top of this article, the reason insomnia makes us fat is that it destabilizes the hormones that affect appetite, hunger and blood sugar causing us to eat more and making it harder for our bodies to burn it off. Knowing all this, let’s look at how you can lose unwanted weight and prevent further weight gain with three steps that will help rebalance your hormones while reducing the inflammation that results from the hormonal imbalance and contributes to weight gain.
Step 1: Make your blood sugar levels a priority
Drink water instead of sweetened beverages and alcohol and eat something that contains protein and healthy fats at least every four hours (even on a busy day). Don’t eat sugar or carbohydrates within three hours of going to sleep. By doing this, you’ll reduce your blood sugar levels while improving your insulin function.
Step 2: Identify any food sensitivities
Avoid any foods you are sensitive to in order to minimize inflammation and promote the healing of leaky gut. You can test for food sensitivities for yourself, at home, with a simple finger prick test. Learn more here.
Step 3: Know your cortisol levels and use daily stress remedies
You can find out what your cortisol levels are by doing a saliva panel that shows your cortisol levels at four different times of day. Then, and this is fully explained in my newly released quick and easy ebook called Stress Remedies, choose activities that lower your cortisol and optimize your stress response. You can find the eBook for 99 cents at Amazon.
If you’d like further help with losing weight, you might consider following my Stress Remedy Programs (7-day or 21-day versions available), and using them as a guideline for your food choices throughout the day. The program includes a meal plan that is free of gluten, dairy, egg, soy, sugar and alcohol that helps you accomplish your goals. The meal plan can be also modified to meet your individual needs.
Plan for weight loss
Just as with any goal, it is important to break your weight loss goals down into ‘doable’ steps. That is to say, make sure you choose goals that are achievable for you. It might be to lose 2 pounds by the end of January, or for others it may be to lose 10 pounds by Spring break. Note that these examples are also specific and should be tailored to your life. You can always adjust your goal if you find that it is not achievable – that is part of the learning process.
For the most comprehensive support with weight loss, be sure to look to my book The Stress Remedy, which includes many case studies that outlines the many possible scenarios that can lead to weight gain. It also includes a three-week menu plan, plus recipes, and a whole chapter focused on supporting your success with optimizing your weight. You can get a copy – paperback or ebook – for yourself, or for a friend or family member, here or at Amazon.
Whether you have sleep apnea or not, getting your body the support it needs – whether that is adrenal support, leaky gut healing, blood sugar balancing, hormone or neurotransmitter balancing, or all of the above – will surely lead to improved health and sleep.
Please share your thoughts, comments, tips and questions in the comments box below. I love to hear from you.
In the next installment of this sleep series I will go into more detail about how inflammation and pain can affect your sleep and what you can do about it. Subscribe to be sure you receive it direct to your inbox.
18th December 2014 (updated 15th January 2015)
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- Leproult R1, Van Cauter E. Role of sleep and sleep loss in hormonal release and metabolism. Endocr Dev. 2010;17:11-21.
- Reutrakul S1, Van Cauter E. Interactions between sleep, circadian function, and glucose metabolism: implications for risk and severity of diabetes. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014 Apr;1311:151-73.
- Leproult R1, Holmbäck U2, Van Cauter E3. Circadian misalignment augments markers of insulin resistance and inflammation, independently of sleep loss. Diabetes. 2014 Jun;63(6):1860-9.<s/mall>
- Zhang J1, Lam SP, Li SX, Ma RC, Kong AP, Chan MH, Ho CS, Li AM, Wing YK. A community-based study on the association between insomnia and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis: sex and pubertal influences. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2014 Jun;99(6):2277-87.
- Arnardottir ES1, Mackiewicz M, Gislason T, Teff KL, Pack AI. Molecular signatures of obstructive sleep apnea in adults: a review and perspective. Sleep. 2009 Apr;32(4):447-70.