Don’t overlook the crucial role of sleep in balancing “hunger hormones”

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sleep-deprivation-affects-hunger-hormones(NaturalHealth365)  It’s official, and we know this to be true, too many people are living with sleep deprivation.  And the problem has worsened over the past few decades.  According to, more than one-third of adults say they sleep less than the recommended eight hours, compared to 1998 when only about a quarter of adults reported sleeping less than the optimal amount.

It is perhaps no accident that rates of overweight and obesity have been climbing as well.  For example, a stunning 40 percent of the adult population is now obese, compared to only 22.9 percent of adults in 1994.  Thankfully, recent research has helped us “connect the dots,” highlighting the connection between insufficient sleep, circadian misalignment, and the rising prevalence of obesity.  Another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that people who sleep less than seven hours a night are more prone to overweight and obesity than their better-rested counterparts.

Let’s see how getting better sleep can help discourage obesity and re-balance levels of leptin and ghrelin, the “hunger hormones.”

Leptin and ghrelin help regulate appetite, metabolism, and body weight

The hormones leptin and ghrelin represent two sides of the same appetite-regulating coin.  Leptin reduces hunger and promotes satiety (a feeling of fullness).  Conversely, ghrelin stimulates the appetite and slows metabolism, causing more calories to be stored as fat.  While leptin and ghrelin are major players in weight regulation, other hormones also play a role.

Insulin, for example, regulates blood sugar levels and helps reduce ghrelin.  Conversely, cortisol, the “stress” hormone, stimulates ghrelin production.  (There is a sound biological reason for this, as the body needs food to create energy to fight or flee from danger.  But, prolonged or chronic stress could cause this mechanism to backfire, leading to weight gain).

Symptoms of leptin and ghrelin imbalances include constant feelings of hunger, overeating, weight gain, insulin resistance, and cravings for high-calorie foods.  An endocrinologist can help you determine if you have an imbalance.

Sleep deprivation impairs leptin and ghrelin balance, triggers overeating

The JAMA study showed that people who sleep less than seven hours a night weigh more, eat more, and choose more high-calorie foods than those who are better rested.  This study helped to validate the findings of an earlier review in BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine, in which the authors reported that individuals who regularly slept less than seven hours a night were more likely to have higher body mass indexes than those who slept the recommended seven to nine hours.

It turns out that sleep restriction is associated with higher levels of ghrelin and higher levels of inflammatory markers – along with decreased amounts of leptin and reduced insulin sensitivity.  In one study, a mere two days of sleep restriction caused volunteers’ leptin levels to plunge by 18 percent, while ghrelin soared by 28 percent.

Insufficient sleep can lead to a “vicious cycle” of overeating and fatigue

More severe sleep deprivation seems to lead to more severe consequences.  One epidemiological study cited by the authors showed that a nightly sleep duration of less than five hours increased the likelihood of developing obesity by a shocking 40 percent!

Another byproduct of sleep restriction, fatigue, may exacerbate the situation further by lowering the inclination and capacity for exercise.  In addition, fatigued people have a natural tendency to consume more calories in an attempt to compensate for feelings of tiredness.

So impressed were the researchers by the findings that they concluded that interventions to improve the quality and duration of sleep could serve as treatments for obesity and related disorders.

Balance leptin and ghrelin with natural strategies

Clearly, getting sufficient amounts of high-quality sleep is important in discouraging obesity and maintaining a healthy weight.  A cool, fully darkened room (with cell phones or TVs turned off and as far away from your body) can help set the stage for restful sleep.  Sticking to a schedule – retiring at the same time every night and arising at the same time each morning – can also be very helpful.

For many, intermittent fasting – when you start eating later in the day and cease eating earlier in the evening – can help re-balance hunger hormones.  (Consult your holistic healthcare professional or health coach before trying intermittent fasting, particularly if you have type 2 diabetes or other chronic health conditions).

Mindful eating – the practice of focusing on the food and the related sensations – may also help to regulate hormones.  Take the time to savor the qualities of the meal, appreciating not only the taste but the food’s aroma, visual appeal, and texture – and pay particular attention to dawning sensations of fullness and satiety.  While not a “diet” technique per se, this leisurely, thoughtful way of eating is associated with weight loss.  Simply put, chew your food very well – each and every bit – for better digestion and overall well-being.

Other common-sense solutions to balance hormones include regular exercise, managing stress, and proper nutrition.  Avoid sugar-laden, salt-rich, highly processed junk foods and fast foods.  (One recent twelve-week study showed that a single daily serving of a fatty, sugary pudding re-wired the brain and caused a group of non-obese participants to crave – and seek out – more sugar-laden foods).  Other foods to emphasize include organic, high-fiber, antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, legumes, healthy fats, and high-quality protein found in wild-caught salmon, poultry, and 100% grass-fed beef.

The lead author of the JAMA study, Dr Beth Frates, director of lifestyle and wellness at Massachusetts General Hospital, pointed out that proper sleep is tied to healthy weight and other positive outcomes.  “People might also feel more alert, energized, and happier with more sleep,” Dr. Frates noted.

Sounds like a win/win for all of us!

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