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How Are Obesity And Sleep Connected?

image of our writer Filip Maric

Written By Filip

Sleep Advisor

Featured image for world obesity day

19 January 2024 14 min read

There's hardly a person alive who doesn't like eating junk food. However, recent studies have shown that eating more carbohydrates and foods with added sugar, directly leads to obesity and sleep deprivation.

We all know that your energy is renewed during sleep. However, what happens when this process fails? Well, your body will want compensation. And if you've ever had a sugar rush, you might think that munching on a few doughnuts will give you the boost of energy you need.

But things are rarely that simple. The effect is short-term, and the consequences can be quite bad. However, this does point to an interesting relationship between sleep deprivation and excess sugar – or, if we take it more step further than that, obesity.

So, today we're going to discuss how exactly these two are connected. Can your weight cause insomnia, or does a lack of sleep cause weight gain? Or both? Well, it's time to find out.

The connection between obesity and sleep

An image of a woman with her hands crossed

Quality sleep is key to good health. On the other hand, obesity can be extremely detrimental to your health. So, how can these polar opposite phenomena be connected?

First off, increased sweating, fatigue and lack of energy are some of the first symptoms of obesity. And if such a condition is not treated, it can lead to sleep apnea and sleep loss in general. Thus, obesity can lead to dangerous sleep disorders and insufficient sleep.

However, it works the other way around as well, since poor sleep quality can also cause excess weight. Just four nights of poor sleep can increase the risk of obesity, confirms the results of a new study from the University of Pennsylvania.

This is because poor sleep initiates a significant drop in the level of hormones that regulate appetite. Then your body begins to crave fatty, fried foods and sweets, and the most common outcome is obesity.

And it doesn't end there. While not the solemn cause, obesity has been linked to a few specific sleeping disorders. Let's talk about the most common ones.

Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome

Have you ever forgotten to breathe? We'd assume the answer is “no” since your body doesn't exactly allow you to forget about it. However, believe it or not, there is a sleep disorder that falls within this general category. And it's not even that rare!

Cessation of breathing and reduction of airflow through the airways are characteristic of OSA. It is most often accompanied by loud snoring. Obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome is a sleep disorder that can be caused by increased fat in the neck area, although that isn't the only factor at play. Fat can press and close the soft tissues of the airway while the person is lying down. It needs to be treated or, otherwise, may lead to other health problems and sleep deprivation.

It is one of the most common sleep-disordered breathing problems in obese people since an increased body mass index is one of the main risk factors. Dealing with this disorder can be an uphill battle and often needs special equipment such as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.

Asthma

According to the British Lung Foundation, 12% of Brits have been diagnosed with asthma. These 8 million + people commonly suffer from the following symptoms:

As you could imagine, these symptoms can easily wake you up during the night and can represent a general downturn of your quality of life – especially if the symptoms are more severe in their intensity.

The reasons for worsening asthma symptoms at night have yet to be fully clarified. However, certain factors can contribute to this unlucky turn of events. Among the most significant is excess weight. For example, obese people get tired more quickly.

Mobility issues

Obesity can also interfere with your everyday life and make just moving around a bit troublesome. Especially in more extreme cases.

The most common mechanical complications include osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) and lumbar syndrome. Psychological and sociological problems also cause feelings of sluggishness. This creates difficulties in performing daily tasks and therefore reduces mobility – sometimes to the point that people find it difficult to get out of bed. Of course, all this disrupts the quality of sleep.

Depression and anxiety

Obesity is spreading all over the world. Does this mean that the majority of the population is not sleeping well? That's hard to say. However, there is one factor that has been steadily rising in the past years that could be to blame – depression.

There is an undeniable connection between depression, body weight and sleep. Constant worry about gaining weight causes anxiety. Anxiety then makes falling asleep more difficult. And having less sleep can cause weight gain – making for quite a negative loop.

But why exactly does this happen? Well, the part of the brain responsible for appetite and mood regulation becomes too active when we're under a lot of stress. One of the symptoms is emotional overeating, but also insomnia.

Gastrointestinal diseases

Some of the main factors that contribute to gastrointestinal diseases are things such as your lifestyle, how much fast food you eat and whether you have reduced physical activity. And while this isn't always the case, obesity can cause one or more of these factors to take hold.

And, as you might have guessed by now, these issues can cause sleep disturbances later on. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get at least 7 hours of sleep. However, that can be harder to achieve if cramps keep waking you up or you have to run to the bathroom every 30 minutes.

How to improve sleep when overweight?

We're sure that even prior to reading this article, you knew that living with obesity is no walk in the park. And given how much it can influence certain aspects of your health and your life, it's natural to want to battle against this condition.

Luckily, there are steps you could take. From specific routines to lifestyle adjustments, living with obesity and fighting against it can be made more manageable. However, we will note that this is just general advice and that seeing a professional is always the best course of action.

Learn more about obesity

What do you need to know about obesity? Well, the more you know, the more easily you can sidestep this condition and fight it before it takes root. For example, note that it does not appear suddenly and is a chronic condition. This means that it usually takes a long time for it to take root but also that even the best medicine and lifestyle changes won't make it disappear in an instant.

So, think of the wider picture. For example, certain foods lead to an increase in the concentration of saturated fat in the blood. By frequent consumption of such foods, you increase the chances of developing a chronic disease – obesity. So, take note of what you eat.

Furthermore, keep in mind that an increase in weight is one of the most obvious signs of obesity. So, while we definitely do not recommend obsessing over the numbers on the scale, keep the fluctuations of your weight in mind on an annual level.

Is that the only indicator? Of course not. There are many others, such as blood sugar levels, cholesterol and skin problems. So it's a very complex topic that's worth exploring further. And, while we still want to stress that you shouldn't obsess over these facts, it's good to know all the risk factors of obesity.

Change your diet

Remember – obesity is affected by food quality, not just quantity. You both have to change what you eat and limit your food intake. Choose foods with high nutritional value, and proven origin and go with healthy ways of food preparation. Replace refined and concentrated sugar with nuts, seeds, olive oil, fresh fruits, legumes, and vegetables.

Eat more of these foods in every meal:

All you need to do is mix it with skimmed milk or yoghurt. Add some almonds and leave them in the fridge.

Equally desirable additions are chia seeds, sunflower, and cashews (maybe a little dark chocolate).

Salads in a jar can be equally good because they are easy and quick to prepare. Pour the dressing on the bottom of the jar, then a layer of nutritious vegetables and meat. Place the leafy greens on the very top.

Plus, taking more care of your diet has some additional benefits. For one, what you eat before bed can affect sleep. So, if you need the right foods, you can get better sleep, and thus have a slightly easier time staying healthy.

Physical activity

An image of a woman working out

How do we gain weight? When our calorie intake exceeds what our body spends – you have to think about energy expenditure. Too much sitting and a lack of physical activity leads to weight gain, as well as metabolic and hormonal changes.

In any case, choosing a physical activity that fits your lifestyle is preferable. It not only helps in reducing body weight but also improves the quality of sleep. You should strive for 150 minutes of physical activity weekly plus 10,000 steps daily.

Now you're probably thinking that going to the gym is not easy. Well, you know what? Everyone was a beginner once and you'll likely find that people are a lot more accepting than we give them credit for. But to help overcome any potential prejudices, you can also find a support group that can go with you on your weight loss journey.

It is also an excellent opportunity to support others with a similar problem. If you continue to exercise, you will soon notice the benefits of physical activity. Even a light walk can make positive changes in the body. In the gym, proper posture during exercise, proper breathing and weight lifting technique are prerequisites. However, schedule a trial workout with a personal trainer to avoid unpleasant surprises.

And if going to the gym simply isn't in the cards for you, there are alternatives out there. You can buy a few dumbells and work out from home with a virtual trainer, jog in the morning, or even take on yoga for some added flexibility.

Buy a suitable mattress

Each mattress is made for a specific body type and sleep position. For example, products designed for heavy people have various support levels. If your bed doesn't support your shoulders, lower back and hips, it's not for you. Although many think a mattress is not that important when it comes to quality of life, they are wrong. An unsuitable mattress may lead to many sleep problems and sleep disturbances.

When choosing a mattress, pay attention to the following:

Tip: You'll know it's the right one if it gives you support and comfort at the same time. Just like choosing a love partner, right? And if you need a wingman, we suggest taking a look at our buyer's guide for the best mattresses for heavier people.

Create a good sleep environment

To avoid the guesswork, simply remove all disruptors from your environment. The main causes of short sleep duration are:

We asked  Dr. Gabriela Rodríguez Ruiz, MD PhD FACS and a board-certified bariatric surgeon at VIDA Wellness and Beauty, what people with obesity can do in order to better their quality of life, and they had this to say:

“They may benefit from implementing good sleep hygiene practices like going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, not eating late in the evening, and avoiding screens for at least an hour before bedtime. Additionally, having a calm sleeping environment that is dark and cool can help improve sleep quality.”

Of course, this is an oversimplification – as there are many moving pieces. However, for the most part, it should be rather intuitive. But if you do want a more detailed guide on sleep hygiene, we recommend reading our article on the topic.

Consult with your doctor or sleep specialist

We hope that by now we've made it evident how many factors can affect obesity and sleep. There are a plethora of different health conditions that can directly affect sleep, shorten your sleep duration, and inadvertently cause weight gain and even obesity.

For this reason, seeing a doctor, having an annual checkup, and dealing with health issues before they start affecting other aspects of your life is essential! After all, doctors know best and can catch potential issues before they become too problematic. So, here are some of the many health conditions that can disrupt your sleep and potentially cause obesity in the long run.

Restless legs syndrome

It is defined as a set of neurological symptoms characterized by leg discomfort during rest. The doctor will probably advise you to check the presence of folic acid, magnesium, and iron in the body. Some types of drugs that contain sedative antihistamines can worsen symptoms.

As always, seeing a professional is your best bet in this situation, as RLS can cause a significant sleep disturbance. If you'd like to know more about Restless Leg Syndrome, we recommend reading our article on the topic.

Anemia

Without enough haemoglobin or red blood cells, there is not enough oxygen, so the body feels tired or weak. Any blood test will show whether you have anaemia. You should remember that anaemia is not just related to iron deficiency. There are several possible causes. It would be best if you discussed this with your doctor if you are pale and experience excessive daytime sleepiness.

Hypothyroidism

This condition occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones and has reduced activity. Thyroid hormones also control our metabolism, so in the case of low levels, it will lead to weight gain, fatigue, as well as other symptoms. Sometimes it can give symptoms like depression – which as we know, is also very detrimental to sleep.

Remember: You can find a suitable solution only after identifying the problem. Maybe you need to lose weight or sleep medicine is required to achieve a good night's sleep and trigger weight loss. So, stay informed and consult your doctor on the best way to move forward.

How does lack of sleep affect weight gain

An image of a man who has had a lack of sleep and is yawning

We've mentioned a few times thus far how influential sleep is on our weight. In fact, a lack of sleep affects overall health, including obesity. But why is that? Well, let's start off by saying that even one sleepless night raises the cortisol levels in the body. To help you better understand the connection between obesity and sleep, let's cover what cortisol is and how it causes chronic symptoms.

 

It is also known as the “stress hormone“, and its presence increases appetite. Certain foods also cause inflammatory processes. Example? Soda, candies and fried foods. The organism sees this as a danger. How does it try to defend itself? By responding with a substantial influx of cortisol. Therefore, it contributes to an increase in body weight.

In such circumstances, people have more time to consume unhealthy food because they do not sleep as much as they should. During this time, the hormonal level in the body makes them even hungrier, creating a vicious circle. The solution to this problem is finding appropriate ways to improve sleep. In this way, the hormonal balance will be restored. Of course, it is necessary to fix the diet.

What is World Obesity Day?

It was created in 2015 as an annual campaign with an important goal. The idea was to emphasize the importance of a healthy lifestyle and stop the obesity epidemic. You have seen this term many times, but do you know what it represents? This includes eating a nutritionally balanced diet, engaging in physical activity and establishing a good sleep schedule.

In addition to an unhealthy diet, one of the leading causes of obesity is the lack of physical activity. World Obesity Day is a call to action in this context. Every year, a large number of organizations and parties try to achieve success with the campaign. If you appreciate their efforts and want to contribute, you have the opportunity on March 4.

Conclusion

The energy we restore through sleep is the foundation for all other bodily functions. If an imbalance arises, it cannot be compensated in any other way. These are perfect conditions for the development of many health problems. Among them, obesity is one of the most prevalent, which has a cause-and-effect relationship with other conditions. Insomnia can also be interpreted as a consequence.

Do not delay any longer, but start your odyssey. The Biggest Loser, a reality television show, is an excellent indicator of what can be achieved quickly if you are dedicated to your goal. And while we can't advise going to those extremes and rushing the process, it can be a good motivation builder! Find a spark you need among contestants or people who are fit and you admire them.

Spread the word

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