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Asleep at the Plate: The Link Between Sleep Deprivation and Weight Gain

Asleep at the Plate: The Link Between Sleep Deprivation and Weight Gain

Roughly 8.4 million adults sleepwalk in the U.S. That means 3 out of every 10 people who think they’re tucked into bed at night, getting restful sleep, are actually out and about, doing who knows what.

In my case, I sometimes wonder if I sleepwalk into my kitchen and load up on whatever calorie-rich foods I can find in the fridge. It would certainly explain why the scale never seems to budge, despite how much I exercise or how healthfully I eat during the day.

To my knowledge, I don’t sleepwalk. But it sure would be a handy explanation for why my pants just keep getting snugger and I always feel lethargic during the day.

Since I’m not a doctor, I thought I’d run my theory past my primary care physician. She found it amusing, but not likely. She instead suggested another culprit: sleep deprivation.

Certainly, as I’ve gotten older, I've experienced more issues with falling asleep and staying asleep. I’d wager I get about 6 hours of sleep a night – and not consecutive hours, either.

Turns out that lack of sleeping well is most likely what’s causing my ever-expanding waistline. At least that’s what my doctor says.

I decided to do some research into her hypothesis and I'm now persuaded she might be on to something.

Since I’m all about sharing the knowledge, this blog post explores the link between sleep deprivation and weight gain. In it, I answer some of the following questions:

How does sleep deprivation affect weight gain?

People who sleepwalk can suffer from sleep deprivation. Researchers have discovered that if you wander around when asleep, you might suffer from bouts of daytime sleepiness, fatigue, insomnia, even depression or anxiety.

However, it’s not just sleepwalkers who find themselves not getting enough quality shut-eye. Anyone can technically suffer from bouts of insomnia.

But how, you’re probably wondering, does lack of regular sleep connect to packing on the pounds.

To make a long story short, it’s all about hormones.

Relationship between sleep and metabolism

During sleep, our body seizes the opportunity to regulate hormones. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

However, when you don’t sleep well, your body struggles to balance cortisol levels. If you wake up every day with high concentrations of cortisol in your system, it can disrupt the delicate equilibrium between estrogen and progesterone.

Why does that matter?

When estrogen and progesterone don’t play nicely together, it throws your thyroid out of whack. When that happens, your metabolism can grind to a halt.

Without a properly functioning metabolism, your body does weird things, like hold onto fat reserves because it thinks you’re starving. It’s a great way to gain weight instead of losing it.

What’s behind the weight gain-sleep deprivation connection?

Think of it as a physiological pajama party. If you ever enjoyed a sleepover as a kid, you’ll likely recall no one actually slept. There was too much fun to be had to ruin it with sleep.

Well, it’s kind of like that with weight gain and sleep deprivation.

Meet the hormone duo: Leptin and Ghrelin

Imagine your body’s hormones as quirky roommates with the power to influence your cravings and appetite. Leptin is the responsible roomie. He signals when you’re full and doesn’t let you overeat.

Then there’s Ghrelin. He always thinks it’s snack o’clock and convinces you it’s OK to keep eating, even when you’ve had your fill.

These two guys usually work well together. However, when you don’t get enough sleep, Ghrelin gets overly pushy about sending hunger pang signals while Leptin takes a little nap in the corner.

Before you know it, your cravings have a mind of their own and you’re downing an entire pint of ice cream in one sitting.

Midnight munchies

Have you ever found yourself staring down your fridge in the wee hours of the morning, fighting the urge to open it and dive in? You can blame it on your brain’s sleep-deprived frontal lobe.

Consider your frontal lobe the bouncer of a food choice nightclub. Normally, it keeps you from making impulsive decisions about what to eat and what to toss out.

However, when you’re suffering from sleep deprivation, your bouncer friend goes on a permanent coffee break. Without him there to remove the riff-raff food choices, your self-control takes a holiday, and you find yourself shoving handfuls of chips or bites of chocolate cake into your face at top speed.

Emotional eating and stress snacking

There’s a reason the phrase “comfort food” exists. When you’re having a stressful day, all you want is the warm embrace of a cheesy slice of pizza from your favorite pizza joint.

Oh, who am I kidding? One slice quickly turns into an entire pie. Before you know it, you’re staring at an empty pizza box, wondering what just happened.

Emotional eating and stress snacking, that’s what, my friends.

It’s not your imagination. Stress hormones make you seek comfort in high-calorie, sugary treats.

Bottom Line: Sleep debt and metabolism meltdown

Do you ever feel like your metabolism is wearing an “out of order” sign? Me, too.

That’s what happens when you continue to accumulate hours of lost sleep each night. You might think it’s a minor inconvenience. The truth is your body treats sleep deprivation like an unpaid debt collector.

Your metabolism takes a hit. Insulin sensitivity wavers. Your body’s fat-storing mechanisms malfunction, going into overdrive.

The result is unwanted pounds.

Are some people more susceptible to sleep deprivation weight gain than others?

Unfortunately, yes.

Your biology, genetics, and lifestyle all play a role in how likely you are to pack on the pounds if you consistently get less than 6 hours of sleep each night.

I think I’m one of the unlucky ones who falls into this category. Let’s explore some of the factors that make you more likely to gain extra pounds from lack of sleep.

Your Genetic Code

Your genes are like an instruction manual. They dictate everything from your eye color to how your body processes sleep.

Some unlucky people have genetic variations that affect their sensitivity to sleep deprivation’s effects on weight gain. Their genes can influence how their bodies regulate hormones like Leptin and Ghrelin, how efficiently their metabolism functions, and even how their brains respond to sleep disruption.

Your Age

As we get older, all sorts of changes happen. Some are good. Others, not so much.

Remember being young and living on only a few hours of sleep each night? You weren’t packing on the pounds then, so what gives now?

One of the negative side effects of aging is the weakening of mechanisms designed to protect against weight gain from sleep deprivation.

When we’re younger, our metabolisms are more resilient and less likely to take a huge hit from lack of sleep. We lose that benefit as we age.

Your Health

Certain health conditions amplify the effects of lost sleep on weight gain. A few of the biggest offenders include:

  • Insulin resistance
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Thyroid disorders

If you’re a woman going through menopause, you’re probably already aware of how sleep deprivation impacts your body’s metabolism and fat storage.

Your Lifestyle

Your lifestyle choices – including how you cope with stress – play a starring role in the sleep deprivation-weight gain saga.

If you turn to food for comfort the minute something stressful happens, you might find yourself more prone to weight gain from sleep deprivation-induced emotional eating.

Likewise, if you don’t get enough physical activity, it can influence how your body responds to a lack of sleep during stressful times.

Can improving sleep patterns help with weight management?

I feel like you probably already know the answer to this question, but I’ll state the obvious answer anyway. Yes, improving your sleep patterns helps with weight management.

Sleeping does more than recharge your energy levels. It’s a secret weapon in the battle against the bulge. Here’s how it works.

How to Improve Your Sleep

Knowing that you need to improve your sleep patterns to ward off weight gain is different from actually figuring out how to do it.

Embracing a few of the simple strategies below can give your body the restful night’s sleep it craves.

  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule. Train your body to follow a regular sleep-wake cycle by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day (yes, even on weekends). This helps regulates your internal clock, improving the quality of your sleep.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine. Turn off the TV, computer, and other digital devices that emit brain-stimulating blue light at least 30 minutes before bed. Engage in calming activities like stretching, meditating, or taking a warm bath or shower. You can use a natural sleep aid like an Aromaworks Aromatherapy Sleep Inhaler to help you relax so you can avoid sleep deprivation.
  • Design a sleep-conducive environment. Transform your bedroom into a haven for sleep. Keep it dark, quiet, and cool. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows and consider blackout curtains to block out external light.
  • Watch what you consume. Avoid heavy, spicy, or high-sugar foods close to bedtime. They can cause intestinal discomfort that disrupt your sleep. You’ll also want to limit alcohol and caffeine in the hours leading up to your scheduled bedtime.
  • Limit naps. Short power naps are beneficial to your health. However, afternoon siestas that last more than 30 minutes can impact your ability to fall asleep later.

If you find these methods don’t work, it may be time to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss alternatives.

Shari Berg is a researcher, frequent blogger, feature writer, and author of Wars End with Me


  1. Sleepwalking more prevalent among U.S. adults than previously suspected, researcher says. Accessed August 16, 2023.
  2. Adult sleepwalking is serious condition that impacts health-related quality of life. Accessed August 16, 2023.
  3. The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones and Metabolism. Accessed August 16, 2023.
  4. Leptin & Leptin Resistance. Accessed August 16, 2023.
  5. Ghrelin: All about the hunger hormone. Accessed August 16, 2023.
  6. Why stress causes people to overeat. Accessed August 16, 2023.
  7. Sleep disorders and the development of insulin resistance and obesity. Accessed August 16, 2023.
  8. Poor sleep habits increase weight gain for adults with genetic obesity risk. Accessed August 16, 2023.
  9. Sleep disturbances may contribute to weight gain in menopause. Accessed August 16, 2023.
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