Sleep and its Role in Weight Management

Not getting enough sleep has many negative effects on health and has also been linked to weight gain and obesity.
Sleep and its Role in Weight Management

Over the past 40 years, the amount of sleep the average American gets has decreased by almost 2 hours.1 Not getting enough sleep has many negative effects on physical and mental health including poor memory, altered mood, increased stress, weakened immune system, poor coordination and decreased alertness. Inadequate sleep has also been linked to weight gain and obesity.

Lack of Sleep and BMI
A study examined the sleep patterns and obesity rates of a group of 32-to-49-year-old adults from the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The researchers found that those who reported sleeping less than 7 hours had a higher average Body Mass Index (BMI) and were more likely to become obese than those who got more sleep.2 These observations support earlier research in adults, children and adolescents that found a relationship between sleep duration and obesity.

Why is Weight Gained
The reasons why inadequate sleep may lead to weight gain is a research area of great interest and not fully understood. There seems to be a connection between sleep loss and hormonal changes that affect appetite and satiety. In a tightly controlled study from the University of Chicago that included 12 healthy men, researchers found that limiting sleep to 4 hours a night resulted in changes in the appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin, and increased hunger as well as cravings for high carbohydrate sweets and salty foods.1 In another similar study, healthy men reported greater hunger and had higher ghrelin levels after sleep deprivation.3

Results from the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study, which examined 1,000 people's sleep habits, reported that those who slept less also experienced similar changes in leptin and ghrelin levels. They also found that the less people slept, the higher their BMI.4 A 2011 study found that lack of sleep appears to reduce energy expenditure.5.

Another possible reason for weight gain may be increased stress levels which may make it more difficult to overcome negative thought patterns and develop effective coping strategies surrounding food and eating. This may increase vulnerability to poor eating habits and subsequent weight gain.

Bottom Line
Following a comprehensive weight management program extends beyond making wise food choices and physical activity to include social support and behavior modification strategies such as self monitoring, goal setting and coping skills. Finding ways to get a good night's sleep such as keeping a regular sleep/wake schedule, reducing caffeine intake, and avoiding alcohol and heavy meals before bed is essential to being in the best mental framework possible to achieve lasting weight loss.

This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated December 17, 2011.


1 Spiegel K, Tasali E, Penev P, Van Cauter E. Brief communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Ann Intern Med. 2004 Dec 7;141(11):846-50.

2 Gangwisch JE, Malaspina D, Boden-Albala B, Heymsfield SB. Inadequate sleep as a risk factor for obesity: analyses of the NHANES I. Sleep. 2005 Oct 1;28(10):1289-96.

3 Schmid SM, Hallschmid M, Jauch-Chara K, Born J, Schultes B. A single night of sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger in normal-weight healthy men.. J Sleep Res. 2008 Sep;17(3):331-4. Epub 2008 Jun 28.

4 Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. 2004 Dec;1(3):e62.

5 Benedict C, Hallschmid M, Lassen A, et al. Acute sleep deprivation reduces energy expenditure in healthy men.. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Jun;93(6):1229-36. Epub 2011 Apr 6.