How a lack of sleep affects your weight, fitness and health

How a lack of sleep affects your weight, fitness and health

So huge is the social emphasis on sleep that from mattresses and white noise generating machines to pills and foods—everything that promises to help you sleep better—are marketed to us across various mediums all day, every day. Whether these products actually work or not is up for debate, but the one fact that we cannot argue is that our sleep quality and habits have a profound effect on our physical and mental health as well as our productivity. 

Both doctors and fitness coaches recommend some sort of physical activity and exercise, even if it is just a walk or clocking a certain number of steps in a day, in order to help you sleep. That is because your body not only recharges for the following day but also helps you fight plenty of physical and mental problems if you don’t get enough or good sleep regularly. 

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Sleep and weight: There are plenty of studies that have been conducted over the years that emphasise the regenerative and restorative effect of sleep, as well as the negative effects of a lack of sleep on our bodies. One of the best motivations for proper sleep is the fact that disrupted sleep makes you piles on the pounds by altering your body’s metabolism and increasing its ability to store fats. Insufficient sleep disrupts hormones that control appetite and feelings of fullness, which could cause people to eat more as well as leave people too tired to exercise in a way that is beneficial to them.

In a study published in the journal Science Advances in 2018, researchers from a Swedish university found that curtailed sleep promotes weight gain and loss of lean mass in humans. “Our findings provide insight into how disruption of sleep and circadian rhythms may promote weight gain and sarcopenia,” the researchers wrote. While changes involving the circadian clock were evident only in skeletal muscle, and the scientists found molecular signatures suggestive of muscle breakdown and gains in adipose tissue.

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“Should you try to diet but don’t get enough sleep while doing so, it is futile, since up to 70% of the weight you lose will come from lean body mass, not fat,” writes Mathew Walker, author of Why We Sleep: The New Science Of Sleep And Dreams, in a piece in The Guardian. Moreover, sleep disruption has been associated with major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies as well as higher risk of cancer and diabetes. So crucial is getting enough sleep that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified any nightshift work as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” 

The magic hour: Sleep habits and durations are also vital in ensuring a healthy heart and staving off Alzheimer’s disease. In a study published in the European Heart Journal—Digital Health in 2021, researchers examined the association between sleep onset timing and cardiovascular disease. The findings suggest the possibility of a relationship between sleep onset timing and risk of developing cardiovascular disease, particularly for women. They also found that those who fall asleep between 10pm and 10:59pm had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who slept earlier or later. And, those who fell asleep at midnight or later, had a 25% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, while those who fell asleep before 10pm had a 24% increased risk.

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Another study published in Nature Communications last April found a clear link between sleep and dementia among middle and old aged people. The scientists examined the association between sleep duration and incidence of dementia and reported a higher dementia risk associated with a sleep duration of six hours or less at age 50 and 60, compared with a normal 7-hour sleep duration. Persistent short sleep duration at age 50, 60, and 70, compared to persistent normal sleep duration was also associated with a 30% increased dementia risk independently of demographic, behavioural, cardio-metabolic, and mental health factors. 

Hampered athleticism: Sleep also plays an important role in affecting athletic performance as well as with injuries. Get a good night’s sleep and you are likely to be hitting your peak performance at the gym or in the game the following day, as well as lowering the chances of picking up an injury. Anything less than six hours of slumber and you are asking for trouble. “Obtain less than eight hours of sleep a night, and especially less than six hours a night, and the following happens: time to physical exhaustion drops by 10 to 30%, as does aerobic output; limb extension force and vertical jump height are reduced; peak and sustained muscle strength decrease,” writes Walker.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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