You Can’t Lose if You Don’t Snooze: [Sleep and Weight Loss]

Most people are well aware of the importance of a good night’s sleep in order to stay energetic, but did you know that sleep is the most effective way to lose weight, heal sore muscles, improve strength, balance hormones, and perform optimally?

Up until the invention of electricity (barely 100 years ago), we synchronized our biological rhythms with the changing of the seasons. We would wake at first light, and sleep when the sun went down, providing us anywhere from 9-12 hours of sleep per night. What the heck happened? We have 24-hr electronic stimulation at our disposal, coupled with increased work stress, shift work, caffeine, sugar and TiVo, how could we possibly get to bed before midnight, there’s just too much to do!

Sleep experts say the average adult requires seven to eight hours of sleep per night. There is strong scientific evidence to suggest that we (western civilization) are extremely sleep deprived, in fact, Americans today on average sleep one hour less per night than we did just 20 to 30 years go. “Sleep is just as important to our overall health as are exercise and a healthy diet,” said Carl Hunt, the director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research in Bethesda, Maryland.

There are some very common sleep-related problems that need to be addressed to help curb this national sleep deficit:

1. Getting to bed too late

2. Getting up to work or train before 4am

3. Getting less than 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis

4. Always feeling tired and lethargic, especially at sunrise when it’s time to get out of bed

5. Poor sleep quality, e.g. frequently waking during the night, or restless sleep

Dissecting Poor Sleeping Habits

1. Getting to bed too late.

Many of our hormones are produced in tune with the cycle of the sun. Stress hormones (cortisol) are produced in the morning and taper off throughout the afternoon, while growth and repair (healing) hormones increase in production as the sun goes down. Our bodies are designed to wind down from sunset until about 10pm when our body should be telling us it’s time to sleep. Physical repair takes place from around 10pm to 2am and psychic (mental) repair takes place from around 2am to 6am These are crucial sleep periods as healing cannot take place without adequate sleep at the right times. While you may go to bed beyond midnight and wake up feeling refreshed, your physical regeneration will be left starving for the necessary repair. This means you must be asleep by 10pm most nights.

2. Getting up to go to work or train before 4am.

Given we need at least 8 hours of sleep/night, a 4am wake-up would require going to bed by 8pm the night before. For many people this is unrealistic due to the fact that it is still light outside during certain times of the year or they may not even get home from work before then. The best solution is to get to bed by 10pm and sleep till 6am, however, if an early rise is a must, then you need to do whatever it takes to get in your 8 hours. This may mean installing blackout curtains in your bedroom and telling the kids to keep the noise down. I often see clients with “perfect” meal plans and committed exercise routines that fail to lose body fat or increase muscle mass because they are sleep deprived.

3. Getting less than 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis.

Some would suggest that our bodies are fundamentally the same as those of our ancestors. Therefore, if humans used to sleep 9-12 hours/night, then one could deduce that we need the same amount of sleep as they did back then. Most people would say that that much sleep is a waste of time and impossible. It’s simply a matter of prioritizing and organizing for most people. If you want to lose weight, feel better, look better and perform better, then figure out how to get to bed by 9 or 10pm. It’s as simple as that. Research show’s that short sleepers are on their way to hypertension, weight gain, diabetes, and even premature aging.

4. Always feeling tired and lethargic, especially at sunrise when it’s time to get out of bed.

I have a 9-month old little girl (Addendum: I now have 2 little girls, 5 and 3, with a 3rd child on the way…likely a girl). I spent the first 4 months after her birth walking around in a trance (Addendum: I have spent the past 5 years…you get the idea). I was foggy headed, lethargic and exhausted. I was waking multiple times a night and never getting close to the recommended 8 hours of sleep. I continue to feel the effects from those sleepless nights. For many people this is a daily occurrence, regardless of whether or not they have small children, they continue to rack up sleep debt by frequently going to bed too late. This debt occurs by consistently getting less than 8 hours of sleep per night. The most important thing you can do is to start to pay back that “debt” by getting the adequate sleep you need at the right times (10pm-6am). The longer you have been building up debt, the longer it will take to pay back, but the health benefits will be profound, including increased feelings of well-being, energy levels, work output, body-fat loss, blood profile improvements, etc.


In my clinical practice, I find one of the most beneficial things to get clients to get to bed on time is to minimize their exposure to bright light late into the evening. Common culprits are the television, computer and even cell phones, and these effects are exacerbated when sitting too close. This light exposure acts as a stimulant on the pineal gland which can inhibit the production of melatonin, your bodies natural sleep aid. This can make people feel like they have more energy and frequently keep them stimulated past the 10pm window.

Because of over-stimulation late into the night, the natural melatonin production doesn’t occur till later than normal, which can remain present in the system into the early morning hours. This can lead to the feeling of grogginess as well as the desire to hit the snooze button just a couple more times. Usually those that have sleep problems also have a hard time producing enough cortisol (natural waking hormone) as the sun rises and have an even harder time waking up. The best advice I can give is to limit bright light exposure at least 1-2 hours prior to your desired bedtime.

5. Poor sleep quality, e.g. frequently waking during the night, or restless sleep.

It is not uncommon for people to have altered hormonal rhythms during the day and night that can interfere with the amount and quality of sleep. Poor nutrition, excessive caffeine late in the day, and increased environmental and emotional stressors can all affect our body’s ability to turn on and off our sleep and wake hormones. It is often necessary to consult with a health practitioner that has the ability to assess your hormone levels, develop a customized nutrition plan and help you reduce your physiological stress load.

Many people think that over the counter drugs can “fix” broken sleep patterns, but this is not the case. If you have problems sleeping, then take a hard look at your everyday activities and figure out which of the poor sleep habits you fall into. After all, sleep is our natural healing mechanism, without which our health will ultimately suffer. It is important to follow these sleep guidelines to optimize your health:

- Get to bed by 10-10:30 p.m. and sleep for a minimum of 8 hours

- Minimize exposure to bright lights and electromagnetic stressors (television, cell-phone, computer) 2 hours before bed.

- Sleep in a totally dark room without an alarm clock close to the bed.

- Avoid the consumption of artificial stimulants after lunchtime as they may affect your ability to relax at night.

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Maund, C.E. “Sleep – The Forgotten Ergogenic Aid” Road Runner Sports. 2002. Volume 11/Number 2.

Wiley, T.S. and B. Formby. Lights Out. Pocket Books, 2000.

Fishman, S. “Are You Sleeping” IMAGE. April 2001.