How sleep affects weight loss

Weight Loss
Table of contents:

Impact on dietary adherence

Impact on exercise performance & recovery

Impact on fat loss muscle mass

Tips for quality sleep

Summing up sleep and weight loss

In modern society, sleep is highly undervalued. We work late nights and rise early, relying on coffee and pre-workout to restore zapped energy. Reality is this “sleep-when-I’m-dead” mentality does more harm than good.

Skimping on sleep disrupts focus and reaction time(1) and increases the risk of chronic disease(2). Some research even links sleep deprivation to car crashes(3) and a variety of other human errors(4, 5).

…But did you know that poor sleep also interferes with fat loss?

When it comes to losing weight, creating a calorie deficit is key…

However, consistent sub-par sleep can make it hard to stick to your diet. And even when your macros are on point, sleep can influence the composition of weight lost.

Keep reading on to learn how sleep affects weight loss and how you can ensure you get in your nightly zzz’s.

Impact on dietary adherence

Poor sleep can impair dietary adherence through its effects on appetite and decision making.

Specifically, restricting sleep has been found to decrease levels of leptin (a satiety-promoting hormone) and increase levels of ghrelin (a hunger-inducing hormone), which augments hunger signals to encourage overeating(6).

Moreover, insufficient sleep impairs self-regulation(7), which makes it easy to succumb to temptation and reach for calorie-dense, hyperpalatable foods high in carbs and fats(8).

So it’s no surprise that studies on sleep restriction find increased food intake and weight gain when calories aren’t controlled(9).

Impact on exercise performance & recovery

Resistance training plays a crucial role in muscle preservation during a calorie deficit. Unfortunately, chronic sleep deprivation can interfere with workout performance, thus predisposing muscle loss while dieting.

For instance, inadequate sleep can impair strength on big compound exercises(10) and make it harder to push through longer workouts(11) or higher rep ranges(12). Additionally, sleep is a crucial time for muscle repair and recovery(13) - so continually cutting on sleep can compromise recovery, which indirectly impedes performance and ultimately risks injury and overtraining.

Impact on fat loss muscle mass

Studies of sleep restriction in sedentary populations further find that poor sleep reduces fat loss independently of its effects on exercise.

For example, a study by Nedeltcheva and colleagues (2010) found that individuals in a calorie deficit  lost 55% less fat and 60% more muscle over 14 days when they slept 5.5 hours instead of 8 hours nightly(14). Even under the same calorie deficit, the same amount of weight lost when sleep-deprived contains more muscle and less fat(15)!

These findings likely arise from the negative hormonal profile resulting from poor sleep. In particular, chronic sleep deprivation can increase cortisol and reduce testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 - which cumulatively creates a catabolic environment favoring muscle protein breakdown over muscle protein synthesis(16, 17, 18, 19, 20). Along these lines, insufficient sleep has been found to lower rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis(21).

Tips for quality sleep

To maximize fat loss, you’ll want to get 7-to-9 hours of quality shuteye. Specifically, to optimize your sleep you should…

1. Limit caffeine intake in the afternoon

Caffeine can have a half-life of anywhere from 2 to 9 hours - so having caffeine in the evening will likely disrupt your sleep(22). To prevent such sleep disruptions, avoid having caffeine in the afternoon.

2. Create a relaxing nighttime routine

Following a regular nighttime routine allows you to wind down and mentally prepare for bed. Create a calming ritual and repeat it daily to train your body for sleep.

For instance, you could…

  • Read a book.
  • Take a warm shower or hot bath.
  • Journal.
  • Meditate.
  • Listen to music.

3. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time daily

When you follow a consistent sleep schedule, your body adapts accordingly - so it’s ready to sleep when you want it to be(23).

4. Get morning sunlight

Light exposure entrains your circadian clock by regulating the production of hormones like cortisol and melatonin, which influence wakefulness. Getting sunlight upon waking helps ensure your clock is synchronized with your desired sleep/wake cycle(24, 25).

5. Avoid blue light at night

Blue light (often emitted from phones, laptops, and TV screens) interferes with natural melatonin production, which can make it hard to fall asleep(26, 27). If possible, limit screen time to at least an hour before bed. And if you’re stuck working late on your laptop, consider wearing blue-light-blocking glasses or downloading an app to filter out blue light(28). In fact, some phone settings automatically reduce blue light for you!

6. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet

To ensure you fall and stay soundly asleep, keep your room between 67-71°F, block all light sources (however small), and reduce any ambient noise(29, 30, 31). You can wear a sleep mask or blackout blinds to ensure total darkness; and use ear plugs to stifle noise, if needed.

7. Avoid eating or drinking too much too late at night

It’s hard to sleep with a full stomach, so try to finish eating at least an hour before bed - and make the meal fairly light and easy-to-digest(32). Additionally, to prevent unnecessary bathroom breaks mid-sleep, limit your fluid intake ~2 hours prior to sleeping.

8. Minimize evening alcohol intake

Although alcohol might appear to help you fall asleep, it can actually interfere with sleep quality - particularly during the second half of the night(33). Moreover, alcohol intake can increase the incidence of breathing disturbances like snoring and sleep apnea(34, 35).

9. Consider sleep supplements

If you find yourself struggling to sleep well despite following all the other tips, consider using a sleep aid supplement like melatonin. Research has found the clinically effective dosage of melatonin to be between 1 mg and 6 mg(36). Nonetheless, be sure to consult with your doctor before starting any supplement.

Summing up sleep and weight loss

To maximize fat loss during a diet, you need to dial in sleep along with your macros.

Chronic sleep deprivation leads to more than just low mood and energy: it also encourages overeating and increases muscle loss while in a deficit.

So even if you hit your macros, slacking on sleep can make your fat loss phase overall less effective. Fortunately, with proper scheduling, lifestyle tweaks, and sleep hygiene, you can enhance your sleep quality to get the most out of your diet.

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