Is Lack of Sleep Making us Fat and Sick?

Is Lack of Sleep Making us Fat and Sick?

Are you one of the many millions of Americans who sleep less than 8 hours per night either because of insomnia or habit? Sleep is one of the essential biological needs of the human body. Sleep deprivation is becoming more and more common worldwide as we adapt a 24/7 lifestyle including longer working hours and increased overnight shifts. Overall, there has been a significant reduction in total sleeping hours for both adults and children.

Many of us notice that even one night of poor sleep has a strong and almost immediate affect on our memory, judgment and ability to perform many of life’s daily complex tasks and many also know that sleep is an important factor in brain development, learning, memory, processing, repair on a cellular level. But, did you know that sleep deprivation, over time can also lead to some very serious issues such as obesity, diabetes, inflammation and decreased immune function?

Among the many issues connected to sleep deprivation are:

  • Obesity for kids and adults secondary to hormonal changes and increased snacking
  • Diabetes
  • Dyslipidemias (unhealthy changes in cholesterol which put you at risk for heart disease)
  • Decreased cognitive functioning in children and adults
  • Decrease in immune function
  • Increase in overall inflammation
  • Decrease in neuro-cognitive functioning
  • Increase in traffic and other accidents (including nuclear accidents!)
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Decrease in sexual desire and sexual performance
  • Depression
  • General increase in all-cause mortality

The Optimum Amount of Sleep

Although there isn’t a consensus on the exact amount of hours for sleep, research suggest 7- 8 hours uninterrupted sleep per night is optimal. Less than that puts you at risk. Note that I say uninterrupted sleep. A vast majority of my patients who complain of insomnia are able to fall asleep but they cannot STAY asleep. This so-called broken sleep insomnia is also a risk factor for a variety of health concerns.

 How can You Improve Your Sleep?

Improving sleep takes a multi-discliplinary approach. Some techniques work for some and some for others. Try a few of the suggestions below and see which ones work for you!

  1. First and foremost, make sleep your priority. Too many of my patients put sleep to the back burner.  It is one of the most important human needs and you must prioritize it.
  2. Improve your “sleep hygiene.” Try to get into bed by 10 pm each night. The room should be very dark (try black out blinds and/or an eye mask). The room should not be too warm and it should be very quiet. Avoid all close to face screens (tablets, smart phones, laptops and computer) at least 2 hours before sleep. Avoid eating at least 2 hours before sleep. Empty your bladder fully. If you watch TV, it must be switched off before you drift off (many TV’s have a timer you can utilize). The TV should be several feet from the bed. Avoid watching violent or upsetting shows or movies or the news before bed. And, have all electronics (including smartphones, tablets, computers and digital alarm clocks) several feet from your bed while you sleep.
  3. Set the scene for successful sleep by taking a warm bath with 1-2 cups of Epson Salt, 1 cup of baking soda and a few drops of lavender oil.
  4. Exercise.  Start with 25-30 minutes per day 3-4 times per week (walking is great exercise by the way) and work up to 150 minutes per week.
  5. Try yoga. Regular yoga practice has been shown to improve the restfulness of sleep.
  6. Get tested for sleep apnea. If you are overweight, if you have been told you snore regularly, if you don’t feel rested most mornings even after a good night sleep, if you have daytime drowsiness or find that you need to nap a lot, talk to your health care provider about a sleep study. People with sleep apnea are not getting restful sleep. They may not be aware but their brains are waking them many many times during the night putting them at risk. Sleep apnea itself has been tied to heart failure and other cardiac issues, diabetes as well as weight gain. If you have been diagnosed and are struggling with your sleep machine (and it’s gathering dust), talk to your provider about an alternative type of machine that you would be more willing to use.
  7. Lose weight. Weight is associated with sleep apnea which increases your risk for sleep issues (as well as diabetes and heart disease). A weight gain of as little as 10% can be predictive of sleep-disordered breathing.
  8. Get some natural sun light every day. Try for 10 minutes twice a day. We need exposure to sunlight on a daily basis to produce the hormones we need for sleep (as well as many other processes in the body).
  9. Reduce or eliminate caffeine. Avoid caffeinated beverages or foods (ex. chocolate) after 12 noon. Keep your caffeine consumption to 1-3 cups of tea or coffee per day.
  10. Reduce or eliminate sugars and refined carbohydrates from your diet which may cause blood sugar spikes associated with poor sleep.
  11. Magnesium.  400-500 mg per day before bed may help with muscle relaxation and sleep. Please note, for some people magnesium may cause loose bowel movement or diarrhea. If this occurs, reduce the dosage or stop entirely.
  12. Chamomile Tea. Consumer 1 cup an hour before bed (note, if you wake a lot to urinate, you may not want to drink liquid before bed)
  13. Try guided sleep meditation. I highly recommend the Yoga Nidra (a practice of guided deep relaxation for sleep). I particularly like Yoga Nidra recording by Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati. You can get it a CD at amazon or download it from i-tunes. There are loads of other Yoga Nidra recordings you can get for free on you tube. The Monroe Institute ( also has some wonderful CD’s and MP3’s.
  14. Try the 4-7-8 breath, introduced to us by Dr. Andrew Weil.  Here’s how to do it:
  • Start by placing the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth (you will keep it there for the entirety of the exercise).
  • You will be inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth around your tongue
  • Exhale completely through your mouth making a “whoosh” sound”
  • Inhale through your nose for a count of 4
  • Hold the breath in for a count of 7
  • Exhale completely through your mouth making a “whoosh” sound for a count of 8.
  • Inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
  • Dr. Weil has a video here:

Sleep Supplements

Try the suggestions above first before you try an herbal supplement or sleep aid. Below are some additional aids that may help you.

  • Melatonin 1-3 mg 1 hour before bed. Melatonin is not a panacea for sleep issues. It is a hormone that the body naturally produces but too much is not a good things. It is a great tool if your sleep pattern has been disrupted by work on travel to a different time zone. It is best for short-term use.  Stop after a few weeks.
  • L-Theanine 100 mg one hour before bedtime can provide a calming effect and also assist in helping you sleep deeper (thereby reducing the incidence of broken sleep)
  • GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid), an amino acid produced in the brain. It is a natural tranquilizer that increases the level of Human Growth Hormones (HGH). Try 500-1,000 mg about an hour before bedtime.
  • 5 HTP 100 mg 1 hour before bedtime can help with anxiety and difficulty falling asleep.

Insomnia is often the result of our daily habits. The key is working on your diet and stress relief during the day and good habits before sleep. Not only will these factors improve sleep, they will go along way to increasing your overall physical health, emotional well being and longevity.

Until next time…


JAMA, 2000 Dec 20, 284(23):3015-21, “Longitudinal study of moderate weight change and sleep-disordered breathing”

Continuous positive airway pressure treatment. Effects on growth hormone, insulin and glucose profiles in obstructive sleep apnea patients. (1993). Hormone and Metabolic Research, 25(7), 375-381. J Am Geriatr Soc, 2011, 59(1):82-90, “The Effect of Melatonin, Magnesium, and Zinc on Primary Insomnia in Long-term Care Facility Residents in Italy: A Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Clinical Trial”

Martínez-Ceron, E., Fernández-Navarro, I., & Garcia-Rio, F. (n.d.). Effects of continuous positive airway pressure treatment on glucose metabolism in patients with obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep Medicine Reviews.

Sleep and Biological Rhythms, 4(3):207 – 214, Published Online: 19 Sep 2006, “Evaluation of sleep architecture in practitioners of Sudarshan Kriya yoga and Vipassana meditation”