Did You Know There's A Close Link Between Sleep Deprivation And Obesity?

Written by Blessing Ifunanya Maduelosi on Tue, 01 August 2023

Key Highlights

  • Sleep deprivation is one of the key factors in making you gain weight or making you unable to lose weight.
  • Lack of sleep lowers the level of hunger-suppressing leptin and raises the level of hunger-inducing ghrelin.
  • Being overweight or obese can put you at risk of a range of health problems, from high blood pressure to diabetes, and even cancer.
  • Address your sleep needs if you find that your weight is inching up above the limit of healthy BMI.
  • Handling lifestyle issues such as shift work and building the right diet can promote both weight loss and good sleep.

Looking in the mirror lately and worrying about the signs of weight gain? It's time to examine not just what you eat, but also how you sleep. The phenomenon of circadian rhythm sleep disorder, in other words "sleep deprivation", is widespread around the globe now, and it affects your weight just like poor dietary choices and inactivity.

Sleep and obesity

Circadian rhythm for sleep refers to the way our body responds to light and darkness, waking up when our brain senses daylight even through the closed eyelids, getting sleepy when twilight gives way to darkness, and finally falling asleep a few hours after complete darkness descends.

Sleep and ObesityThe normal sleep hours we need for good health — the usual 7-8 hours apply to most people — is the body's downtime, and this is when it carries out internal repairs. Sleep deprivation throws this repairing system out of whack and, among other things, causes an imbalance in the secretion of the two hormones leptin and ghrelin.

That, in turn, leads to weight gain and, unless the sleep deprivation is brought under control, the excess weight starts inching towards obesity. 

The reason why sleep deprivation and obesity are linked is that the levels of leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone, are lower than ideal in sleep-deprived people, while the levels of ghrelin, an appetite-inducing hormone, are higher than ideal.

It so happens that most people can't figure out the connection — the fact that lack of sleep causes obesity — and so they try other methods to bring their weight down without paying attention to sleep quality. 

They're mystified when they're unable to stick to their dietary targets or when their weight-loss results taper off despite workouts. Sleep deprivation could be, and often is, a major factor behind such stymied attempts, so that's where the remedial action needs to start.

What is obesity?

Obesity is the extreme level of being overweight, and it's quantifiable by a person's body mass index (BMI). 

The BMI calculation formula is a person's weight in kilograms divided by the person's height in meters squared. So, a person who weighs 45 kilograms and is 5'0" in height (or 1.524 meters tall) has a healthy BMI slightly above 19, a number we get by dividing 45kg by 1.524m2 (which is 2.323m).

BMI RangeAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), United States, the BMI range is as follows:

  • Below 18.5 - Underweight 
  • 18.5 to 24.9 - Healthy weight
  • 25 to 29.9 - Overweight
  • 30 and above - Obesity

Uncontrolled and unplanned weight gain is the result of an imbalance between calorie intake and energy expenditure, resulting from complex interactions between many genetic and environmental factors. Obesity is a chronic issue that affects millions of people worldwide and results in substantial health-related expenditure and loss of productivity, not to mention the psychological and emotional toll.

When it comes to losing weight, there's no 'one size fits all' magic answer. Since obesity is a combination of bad eating habits, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, increased stress levels, hormone imbalance, and side effects of medications, taking care of just one or two aspects and ignoring the rest won't help you reach the desired fitness level.

Therefore, for people who are overweight or obese, good sleep is as important as all the other factors. Indeed, sleep deprivation is the one factor that needs the most urgent attention and remedy, since it has a cascading effect on the other factors, from physical health to emotional wellbeing. 

Health risks of obesity

Here are some of the most serious health conditions linked to obesity:

Health risks of obesityType 2 diabetes: The risk of developing this serious disorder rises dramatically when you're severely overweight. According to the World Health Organization, obesity is the cause of around 70% of Type 2 diabetes cases in men and 75% of cases in women.

Cardiovascular disease: Your waistline might make your blood pressure (BP) look bad. Being obese is linked with having a high BP and raised cholesterol. Your heart has to work harder to pump blood around a larger body. As a result, obesity doubles your risk of a heart attack or stroke. According to a Harvard Medical School report, controlling your weight is an important way to lower stroke risk. Excess kilos strain the entire circulatory system and can lead to other health conditions, including high BP, diabetes, and high cholesterol. 

Osteoarthritis: Carrying excess weight puts an increased strain on your joints, especially your knees and hips. This can lead to osteoarthritis, an inflammatory and degenerative condition in which the cartilage and bone within a joint wear away.

Cancer: Being obese is linked with an increased risk of developing cancer, especially those affecting the esophagus, pancreas, bowel, breast (after menopause), endometrium (womb lining), kidney, thyroid, and gallbladder. 

According to the National Cancer Institute in the United States, for some types of cancer, obesity is thought to account for 40% of cases. A 2016 report published in the journal Cell Metabolism, titled 'Obesity and Cancer: The Oil that Feeds the Flame', says, "In the past decade, cancer has joined the list of chronic debilitating diseases whose risk is substantially increased by hypernutrition."

Obesity and Health DisordersRespiratory disease: Your risk of developing lung conditions such as asthma increases when you're overweight. Obstructive sleep apnea, where breathing is interrupted when sleeping, is also common, leading to disturbed, restless sleep, tiredness and an increased risk of daytime accidents. 

Reproductive and urinary problems: Women who are obese are more likely to experience difficulty conceiving and health issues during pregnancy, as well as problems with menstruation. The risk of urinary leakage as a result of stress incontinence also rises with weight in women, while overweight men are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction.

Liver disease: Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) occurs when fats build up in liver cells. This leads to inflammation and further results in fibrosis, cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer if not recognized and treated.

Knowing the health risks associated with obesity might be just the motivational trigger you need to start losing weight slowly and healthily. And one of the easiest ways to do this is getting proper sleep. 

How to prevent sleep deprivation and obesity

Studies show that those who take longer to fall asleep and/or have fewer sleep hours tend to snack on unhealthier foods during the day, which affects their ability to keep weight under control. 

Take charge of your sleep discipline and your meals to prevent lack of sleep and obesity. 

Here's how you can do it.

1. Manage sleep and diet while working shifts

There's no shortage of reports detailing the health risks attached to shift working, which is blamed for just about everything from obesity to depression

If your job requires you to work shifts, here are some ways to help improve your health and avoid weight gain: 

  • If possible, stick to the same working hours rather than constantly switching shifts.
  • Create a proper sleep environment when you have to sleep during the day. Make sure you go to bed to sleep instead of napping on the sofa. If the light keeps you awake, use blackout blinds or an eye mask. And if noise is a problem, use earplugs.
  • Avoid energy drinks and sugary snacks. Although these give you a quick energy boost, they'll make you feel worse in the long run. Take healthy snacks such as fruit or nuts to work to provide natural energy.
  • You may be eating at odd hours but it's still important to plan healthy meals and make time for proper meals rather than just keep snacking. Eat regular smaller meals, no matter the time, such as a before-shift 'breakfast' and a mid-shift 'lunch break'. Plan snacks between meals instead of munching nonstop.
  • Get exercise and fresh air. Take a walk every day or visit the gym before or after your shift to keep fit and energized.

2. Prevent poor sleep from ageing you

  • A 2015 study in the journal Sleep says that when you sleep for 90 minutes less than you should, for a prolonged period, your cell function is reduced to a level equivalent to that of someone 10 years older. 
  • Less than seven hours of sleep a night causes a reduction in the mitochondrial DNA copies in your blood cells. Mitochondria, the organelles that produce energy for our cells, are greatly influenced by our lifestyle. 
  • Too little sleep puts strain on the body and damages the cells. A switch to better sleeping habits can give the body time to regenerate and make it function optimally again. That means getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep in every 24-hour cycle.

3. Stop being worried about sleep

The best way to get some sleep is to stop losing sleep over it. Does that sound confusing? 

It means that some nights, when you're unable to fall asleep easily, don't worry about not getting enough sleep and feeling tired the next day. 

Instead, just let your whole body relax and focus on your breathing, keeping a steady rhythm. You'll either fall asleep eventually, or you'll reach a state of rest that's close enough to sleep. 

What's the sleep-weight connection?

There's increasing scientific evidence of the links between sleep, circadian rhythms, and metabolism. 

  • Poor sleep quality and quantity triggers hormonal imbalances, particularly in cortisol levels. 
  • Cortisol is known as the 'stress hormone' as it governs the 'fight or flight' stress response. Cortisol levels should go down as you approach the end of the day, allowing you to wind down. But psychological stress can raise your cortisol levels at night, and sleep deprivation is one of the factors behind psychological stress. 
  • Therefore, not giving yourself adequate time to sleep causes a vicious cycle where sleep deprivation elevates cortisol level, and this high cortisol level leads to further sleep deprivation.
  • This high level of cortisol has another downside: it makes you seek comfort foods, which are often high-calorie snacks. The hunger pangs are further driven by the imbalance of hunger-suppressing leptin and hunger-inducing ghrelin in sleep-deprived people.
  • Moreover, our body's ability to regulate the use and storage of fat is compromised when we don't get enough sleep. Disrupted sleep may lead to insulin resistance and an increased risk for diabetes.
  • Lastly, sleep-deprived people may be too tired to exercise, decreasing the possibility of burning the calories from all the untimely snacking.

Could you possibly be eating in your sleep? 

Astonishing as it sounds, people affected by Sleep-Related Eating Disorder (SRED) do just that. In this disorder, the affected person repeatedly and involuntarily eats during sleep.

The foods thus consumed may be unusual, dense in calories, or even inedible. 

Most people with SRED typically become aware of their affliction by discovering missing food or a messy kitchen in the morning — not to mention the fact that they just can't seem to lose weight.

Eat right to sleep well and burn fat

Good Quality ProteinYou need to sleep better to be able to lose weight. Key changes to your dietary habits can aid weight loss and can also improve your chances of falling asleep easily.

Try the following steps:

1. Increase protein levels at breakfast

  • Make the first meal of the day with good quality protein and other low glycemic index foods, which release energy slowly and steadily. These will minimize glycemic response and hunger. 
  • In fact, consuming adequate amounts of dietary protein and sticking to a timed meal pattern, i.e. three main meals a day, can help to reset your circadian clock.
  • Combine protein sources such as eggs, beans, or a protein shake with whole grain cereals, porridge, muesli, fruit, unsweetened yogurt and skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. 
  • Add nuts and seeds to your cereal for good fats. Fresh fruit smoothies are great when you're in a rush — simply blend fresh fruits with yogurt and throw in some seeds for essential fats. 

2. Go easy on the caffeine

  • Coffee or tea clears the morning fog by increasing alertness, but avoid too much of these beverages, especially in the evening. They can adversely affect sleep because of the caffeine content.
  • Aim for only one or two cups of caffeinated coffee per day, plus three mugs of preferably green or white tea. Or you could switch to decaffeinated brands and herbal teas such as Rooibos, calming chamomile, or soothing mint.  

3. Avoid refined grains

  • Keep off white rice and white wheat flour products. Use whole grains like brown rice, rolled/steel cut oats, spelt and whole wheat.
  • Pseudo-grain seeds like quinoa, buckwheat, millet, and amaranth are gluten-free and high in protein and contribute to restful sleep.

4. Get your vitamins and minerals

  • There are many vitamins and minerals that play important roles in hormone production and balance, as well as helping to calm and relax the body and prepare it for sleep. 
  • Eating a variety of vegetables and fruits of different colours will ensure that you get a spectrum of nutrients. 

5. Stock up on sleep-inducing foods 

  • Certain foods contain tryptophan and melatonin, and others have magnesium and potassium, which are all helpful for sleep. 
  • Try including bananas, chia seeds, organic dairy, whole oats, whole grains, lettuce, cucumber, almonds, turkey, chicken, kiwi, walnuts, milk, chickpeas, salmon, tart cherries, kale, and sweet potatoes in your meals to get those benefits.

6. Drink pure coconut water

  • A glass of fresh coconut water — obtained from a green coconut, not from a tetra pack — is an excellent source of 'electrolyte' minerals: potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and sodium. 
  • Balanced levels of these minerals are necessary to maintain normal muscle action, nerve function, and hydration. Deficiencies or imbalances may cause cramping and restless legs at night, and, therefore, disturbed sleep. 
  • Calming herbal teas such as chamomile, passionflower or valerian, or specific sleep blends can be helpful, too. 

7. Get enough zinc

  • Meat, legumes, nuts, and seeds are sources of zinc, which is needed for the conversion of tryptophan into sleep-inducing melatonin. 
  • Eat zinc-rich foods such as pumpkin seeds, oysters and other seafood, whole grains and nuts.

8. Avoid big meals before bedtime

  • Try eating dinner about three hours before going to sleep, and avoid large meals of hard-to-digest foods, e.g. red meat, cheese, nuts, and fried foods. 
  • Also, stay away from sugary foods such as chocolate, sweets, cakes, and sugary drinks before bedtime. If you do feel slightly hungry between dinner and sleep, snack on a banana for a good dose of potassium.


There's a clear association between sleep deprivation and obesity or the inability to lose weight. This complex relationship deserves your immediate attention, as the combined effects of lack of sleep and obesity can undermine your health. 

Fortunately, this issue can be rectified with modifications in your lifestyle. Even small changes will go a long way in restoring your physical and psychological wellness.


Blessing Ifunanya Maduelosi

Blessing Ifunanya Maduelosi is a pharmacist by profession; her health credentials include a BPharm (Bachelor of Pharmacy). Blessing is a resident of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria.

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Our team of experts frequently monitors developments in the health and wellness field, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.

Current Version

Aug, 01 2023

Written By

Blessing Ifunanya Maduelosi