Sleep Yourself Skinny It's not only leaving us shattered and ill. Experts say too little shut-eye is making us fat


For women, lack of sleep is so common that the standard reply to ‘How are you?’ is: ‘Shattered!’ But a growing body of evidence indicates that chronic tiredness isn’t just affecting our ability to function well – it’s also making us fat.

Around 60 per cent of British adults are overweight or obese, and research suggests that the cause may not be overeating or lack of exercise, but sleep deprivation.

As you will see, the reason that singer Jennifer Lopez looks ten years younger than she is may be due to her ability to get eight hours of sleep a night.

‘We have done a series of studies looking at weight and sleep, and studying the metabolic rate,’ says Dr Shahrad Taheri, a consultant endocrinologist at Birmingham Heartlands Hospital.

‘We discovered that people who sleep for significantly less than seven hours a night often end up being obese.’

It also seems that people who sleep for fewer than four hours a night are 73 percent more likely to gain excess weight, while restricting sleep can lead to cravings for up to 900 extra calories a day.

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This much food on top of a normal diet could result in an alarming weight gain of up to 2lb a week.

The findings suggested that although participants had no significant weight problems beforehand, their weight grew as their sleeping time shrank.

‘Lack of sleep seems to stimulate the hormones that regulate appetite,’ explains Dr Taheri. ‘It leads to higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers appetite, and lower levels of leptin, that tells your body it’s full.’

And the problem is set to increase. In the past 50 years, the average night’s sleep has dropped from nine to seven hours.

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And a new survey by the Vitality Show reveals that just 19 per cent of adults enjoy a full eight hours a night, while 16 percent are getting by on fewer than six.

Over half of us are regularly so weary at work that we long to go home, while 59 per cent of women in their 30s are ‘tired all the time’.

Forget Broken Britain, this is Broken Night Britain – and while the occasional late bedtime can be slept off, our chronic levels of sleep deprivation are pushing us beyond mere tiredness into ill-health, with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

While there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that restricted sleep leads to haywire hormones, Dr Taheri’s team is investigating other factors in the connection between insomnia and weight gain.

‘The longer you’re awake, the more time there is to eat, for instance,’ he adds. ‘And obesity is likely to lead to broken sleep. Weight is a factor in sleep apnoea [a sudden halt in breathing patterns] and snoring, which are more likely to wake you during the night, so you can end up in a vicious cycle.’

Other studies have found that lack of sleep can double the risk of obesity in adults.

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‘I’ve never been a good sleeper and have always struggled with my weight,’ says 32-year-old Claudia Phillips, from Surrey.

‘In my 20s, I started being unable to sleep for more than an hour at a time.

‘My GP thought the stress of my job may have been a factor and he prescribed sleeping pills. But he also believed the insomnia and weight gain could be linked as, without sleep, the body does not metabolise food effectively.’

Not sleeping also meant Claudia would raid the fridge – ‘The logic being that a full tummy might help me nod off,’ she says. ‘My weight crept up to 14st, which is a lot for someone who’s 5ft 6in.’

In an informal experiment by a U.S. magazine, led by Dr Michael Breus, a group of women were asked to keep their eating and exercise habits as they were, but to sleep for seven-and-a-half hours a night.

Astonishingly, all the women lost between 3lb and 15lb. Now, a larger U.S. study is investigating the effect that sleeping for longer has on body weight. ‘We are looking at the prevention of obesity,’ Dr Taheri says. ‘The connection [between sleep deprivation and putting on weight] holds true everywhere, even Japan.’

Dr Taheri recommends between seven and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.

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February 17, 2010