Hormones aren’t just for teenagers. Insulin, androgens (muscle-building hormones), growth hormone, and cortisol – the “stress” hormone – are affected by it, or lack thereof. When you zero in on cortisol, it’s actually a good hormone: it has anti-inflammatory and fat-burning properties. Under normal conditions, it wakes you up and helps you fall asleep. But when it’s elevated for too long, it weakens muscle tissue and your overall health.
When you’re sleep-deprived, instead of cortisol elevating to wake you up and subsiding to put you to sleep, it stays level throughout the day and jumps up a bit at night. Recent studies noted an increase – as high as 50% – after four hours of sleep deprivation per week in otherwise healthy men.
Why You’re Getting Weaker:
Missing sleep for one night may not make you weaker or run slower, but over time, sleep deprivation may catch up to you – literally. Reports are mixed, and most studies just focused on people who skipped one night of sleep. In real life, we miss out on a few hours every night, which adds up.
Does Sleep Deprivation Make You Fatter?
Almost every study on sleep deprivation says that if you miss sleep, you’ll eat more and gain weight. The idea behind that is based on rat studies: sleep-deprived rats, after 5 days, ate more food but did not increase their body weight.
In humans, studies found that, after a few hours of sleep deprivation for 4 days, we eat approximately 20-25% more food. However, the body does respond to orexin, which is a wakefulness-promoting hormone. It increases the longer you’re awake, making you hungry. It also regulates how you expend energy, but no one knows if this is what stops you from gaining weight. That increased food intake may be what leads to weight gain – but human studies haven’t drawn definitive conclusions.
Missing 3 hours of sleep per day reduces metabolic rate by 7.6%, while another found no difference. Yet another, on teenage boys, found that they burned more calories. There’s no evidence that sleep will reduce your metabolic rate, but being tired may cause you to move less. That, combined with increased food intake, could result in weight gain.
Combating Sleep Deprivation:
In any case, sleep is good, whether you’re training for a marathon or just trying to stay healthy. Here are a few tips for getting better sleep:
Time your food intake. What you eat affects your circadian rhythm. High-protein breakfasts help reset your circadian rhythm, which probably comes from the interaction between dietary protein and that orexin hormone. Meanwhile, carbs help promote relaxation somewhat indirectly by increasing serotonin, which becomes melatonin – which helps you sleep. This requires darkness to work, so a small serving of carbs may help you get more restful sleep.
Regulate your exposure to light. It’s not just sunlight that affects how you sleep; blue/green and white lights, like those from your TV or computer monitor, also can help or hurt your sleep cycles. Sometimes working late is unavoidable, and for that, there’s the free f.lux software, which reduces the brightness of your screen and some of the blue/white lights to better mimic the light outside while still rendering everything readable. If you’re having trouble sleeping, avoid blue/green and white lights at night, using pink/red dim lights to help regulate your rhythms.
Consider supplements. Melatonin can help you fall asleep, but keep in mind that if you regulate your light exposure, you get the same effects. Another option is trying lavender aromatherapy, which can help relax you and keep you relaxed throughout sleep.