Sleep, Stress and Weight Loss: Understanding the Connection

Weight loss is about more than nutrition and exercise. As much as I wish we could, we can’t compartmentalize food, fitness, stress and sleep. For today, let’s focus on the connection between sleep, stress and weight loss.

The best place to start this discussion is by acknowledging the fact that we are living in a fascinating and important time period since the start of 2020.

In our current political and social climate, managing our stress levels and sleep should be a top priority. We have to take care of ourselves.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. I know, I have two kids at home, a business, a move coming up next week and I’m maxed out. My old friend anxiety visits in the form of tightness in my muscles, restless sleep and weight gain.

We can’t make the stress disappear. However, we can change our reaction to stress. Additionally, we can find tools to help us manage stress, and one of those tools is sleep.

Sleep-Stress Cycle from Hell

Does this scenario sound familiar?

Stress is high and you either a) can’t fall asleep at night b) have restless sleep or c) wake up very early in the morning, typically between 3-5 am.

The following day, your food cravings are high, feelings of stress are still high, energy is low. Then, it’s night time again and it’s another bad night of sleep.

Sound familiar?

I call this the sleep-stress cycle from hell. Not only will it sabotage the most pristine food and fitness routine, it carries some pretty significant health consequences.

Have you ever noticed that during periods of high stress and poor sleep that weight goes up, or gets redistributed, especially in the abdominal region? You aren’t imagining it, there’s a physiological explanation.

There are some people who lose appetite and thus, lose weight during periods of high stress. For the sake of discussion today, I’ll focus sleep and stress effects through the lens of intentional weight loss and health, since that is what most of my clients are seeking.

Sleep and Health

In a nutshell, chronic short sleep (<7 hours) or poor quality sleep increases your risk for:

Heart disease
Alzheimer’s disease
Motor Vehicle Accident
Hypertension (stroke, kidney disease)
Type 2 Diabetes
Reproductive challenges
Immune system dysfunction
Certain types of cancer
Shortened Telomeres (they protect your DNA)
Weight gain

Findings summarized in Dr. Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.’

We need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. This is non-negotiable. Regardless of whether you work night shift or work from home, there are universal strategies you can use for a better night’s sleep.

What happens after one bad night of sleep? 
-Blood pressure increases. 

-Hormones that control hunger and appetite are affected.

-Blood sugar levels increase. 

-Cortisol, the stress hormone, increases. 

-Cognitive performance decreases. 

-Athletic endurance decreases. 

Linking Sleep and Weight Gain

If you go back to our original sleep stress cycle from hell, increased stress can cause poor sleep. Poor sleep results in elevated stress hormones. The cycle continues until we intervene.

Poor sleep is linked with weight gain because sleep deprivation is associated with increased blood sugar levels, decreased insulin sensitivity, and increased appetite.

Furthermore, if you pair increased blood sugar, decreased insulin sensitivity and increased appetite with elevated cortisol levels, it is not uncommon to see excess weight stored around the midsection (aka belly fat).

Another point to consider is that if you are chronically sleep-deprived, you are more likely to feel fatigued, lethargic and likely won’t have extra energy to plan meals or do a workout.

Stress and Weight Loss

Along with poor sleep, let’s examine the relationship between stress and weight loss.

The main culprit linking stress and weight gain is the stress hormone cortisol. When we feel stress, our bodies produce cortisol, this hormone triggers the body to release insulin, which drives blood glucose into cells.

Decreased blood glucose = increased appetite, especially for sugary, high fat foods. Helloooo sweets and comfort food cravings.

Perhaps a nap or rest isn’t in the cards when after a tough night’s sleep, but there are strategies you can use to help with scaling back when the body is under stress.

What can I do to help with sleep and stress?

Better Sleep Strategies

Changing sleep habits takes discipline. Pick one of these habits to try to achieve better sleep this week. 

  • Curb caffeine by early afternoon
  • Turn half of the lights off (1) hour before bed
  • Adjust screens to night mode (1) hour before bed
  • Turn off TV while falling asleep
  • Make the room as dark as possible
  • Make the room as cool as possible
  • Go to bed at the same time each night
  • Find blue light blocking glasses to wear
  • Read from printed book instead of screen
  • Reset sleep cycle by getting up before sunrise
  • Find a relaxation exercise to try before bed
  • Set a consistent bedtime
  • Consider supplementing with Magnesium L-Threonate

Stress Management Strategies

Stress management looks different for every person. I like to use exercise and meditation (if I make time) or a breathing exercise.

I encourage you to find one thing you can try today. Here are some examples to help you get started.

  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Breathing Exercise
  • Exercise
  • Give myself some grace to say “no” to activities
  • Outsource responsibilities (cleaning service, grocery delivery)
  • Dry Sauna 
  • Talk to someone (therapist, friend, spouse, family member, me)
  • Schedule a personal day
  • Yoga class
  • Find a creative activity

Did you try any of these recommendations? Tell me! I can’t wait to hear from you.

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Hi, I'm Shannan.

I help adults make confident choices for a lifetime of good health.

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