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The Sleep-Weight Connection

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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The Sleep-Weight Connection

Ever feel like you don’t get enough sleep? You’re not alone. The National Institutes of Health recommends dedicating 7–8 of the 24 hours we are given in a day to sleep. Yet, in a 2013 survey, the National Sleep Foundation found that Americans are getting an average of six hours and 31 minutes of sleep on work nights. According to a Gallup poll from the same year, 40% of us get less than the recommended amount, down more than an hour from 1942. A lot has changed since the 1940s, but our need for sleep has not.


In today’s society, there’s increased pressure for us to be tuned in, turned on and plugged in. This translates to a slow drain on our sleep account, especially if we aren’t intentionally prioritizing rest. You may be sleep-deprived for a number of reasons, but here are a few of the most common ones:

  • You’re lost without your screen time. Phones, tablets and other smart devices emit brain-activating lights, and, according to the NSF, more than 95% of Americans use some type of gadget within an hour of going to bed.
  • You love a good buzz. There’s a craft beer, frothy cocktail and Starbucks on every corner — that’s great for enhanced sociability,  but all that caffeine and alcohol isn’t doing much to help our sleep patterns.
  • You’re all work and no rest. Work hard, play hard is a detrimental attitude that’s becoming widely accepted without an inclusion to rest hard. Americans are busier now than ever, working longer days, taking less vacation and retiring later. We are stressed, overworked and constantly comparing ourselves with others on social media and in the workplace. As a result, many of us would rather allocate free time to nonsleep activities.

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Sleep offers our bodies a chance to be restored and rejuvenated. And, this isn’t just beauty sleep we are talking about here. Most of our body’s major restorative functions — muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis and growth hormone release — happens while we sleep. Sleep deprivation extends far beyond a little grogginess, too. According to Dr. Sujay Kansagra, a sleep health consultant for Mattress Firm, mood often suffers with sleep deprivation, as does the attention span. Other areas of health that are affected include the heart, immune functions and appetite regulation. Other studies have shown sleep deprivation to impair judgment (leading to more accidents on the road and at work), affect our cognitive ability, kill our sex drive, age our skin and worsen our memory. It also may cause weight gain and has been linked to depression.


There’s a growing body of evidence that ties short sleep duration (getting less than 7–8 hours of shut-eye) with higher BMI’s in both adults and children. In 2015, researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar presented evidence that cutting sleep by as little as 30 minutes per day can lead to weight gain. The researchers studied 522 participants with newly diagnosed Type 2 diabetes for 12 months, asking them to track sleep seven days a week. After a year, the researchers found that, for every 30 minutes of sleep debt accrued at baseline, the risk of obesity and insulin resistance significantly increased, by 17% and 39%, respectively.

A 2012 University of Colorado study found that when participants weren’t getting enough sleep it affected their food choices and meal patterns. When participants skimped on sleep, they not only ate more food, but they also chose food that was lower in nutrients and higher in fat and carbohydrates. They also ate smaller breakfasts and had a greater tendency to snack after dinner.

Another study of just 30 participants published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 found that sleep-deprived participants ate an average of 300 more calories per day, mostly in the form of saturated fats. But why? There’s a hormonal imbalance associated with sleep deprivation. Inadequate sleep impacts ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that regulate hunger and fullness. Ghrelin signals to your brain that it’s time to eat. The less you sleep, the more of this hormone your body tends to make. Leptin, on the other hand, signals to your brain that you’re full. Sleep deprivation actually causes production of leptin to drop, desensitizing your feeling of fullness. Tie the two together, and you’ve got one disastrous duo for weight control.

But that’s not all: There’s a third hormone, cortisol, that may be involved as well. Cortisol is a stress hormone that signals the body to conserve energy (translation: store fat), and it spikes when we don’t get enough sleep. While the study sample size was small, the findings are still insightful given that the participants were observed under well-controlled conditions.


Sleep is undervalued. Getting enough quality sleep is holistically tied to your health and weight-loss goals. Here are five tips to help you not only get a better-quality dose of zzz’s but more of them, too:

  • Turn your lights down an hour or so before bed. Light after sundown can delay your body’s natural clock from shifting into sleep mode. Darkness cues the release of melatonin, a hormone that will help you snooze.
  • Reduce screen time at night. More screen time means more brain stimulation, which is not sleep-friendly.
  • Get more exercise into your day. According to the NSF, adding even a few minutes of physical activity to your day makes a difference in your quality of sleep. This is supported by data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which found that 150 minutes of moderate activity a week showed a 65% improvement in sleep quality. People who worked out felt less drowsy during the day, too.
  • Track your sleep. Use a pen-and-paper sleep diary, or invest in an activity monitor that records the number of sleep hours you get daily. After a few weeks, spot trends in your sleep pattern. Make it a priority to get at least seven hours of sleep daily, and track to keep yourself accountable. To spot more trends, record your alcohol and caffeine intake, exercise and any other factors that affect your slumber.
  • Lay off the alcohol, caffeine and high-fat, high-protein foods too close to slumber. Keep alcohol and caffeine as far away from bedtime as possible. Alcohol may make you sleepy, but alcohol-induced sleep is also less restful. Additionally, your body isn’t designed to digest food while you’re asleep. Protein and fat take longer to break down (making them great for breakfast!) and will keep your system awake longer.

Is sleep the solution to our current obesity epidemic? Not likely. But it can possibly help individuals better manage their weight. Think of sleep as nutrition for your brain and body. Feed them well.

Written by Sidney Fry, MS, RD, a James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition consultant, writer and editor based out of Birmingham, Alabama. She’s a registered dietitian with an extensive understanding of how to make healthy food both attractive and delicious. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.  

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About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a two-time James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition writer, editor and mom based out of Birmingham, Alabama. A registered dietitian with a passion for research and being proactive about health, she loves to eat, write, run and create simple, tasty meals with whole-food-based approach. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.


18 responses to “The Sleep-Weight Connection”

  1. Avatar Tom says:

    So no avacado before bed? Thought that was sound fat-loss advice.

  2. Avatar Crazy4Synchro says:

    Another bonus: very unlikely to be eating while you are asleep!

  3. Avatar Chgotiger says:

    So what is the advice for those being treated for chronic insomnia which is so severe it requires benzodiazepines or anti-psychotic medications… which have weight gain side effects of their own?

    • Avatar robinbishop34 says:

      Benzodiazepines are often prescribed for severe alcohol withdrawl which causes complete insomnia. I know there is an inexpensive supplement/amino acid called GABA that is supposed to do wonders for this problem. It is a naturally occurring chemical that has been suppressed by excessive alcohol consumption resulting in severe anxiety and inability of sleep.

      • Avatar Chgotiger says:

        Klonopin is very commonly prescribed for sleep.

      • Avatar Chgotiger says:

        Trust me, I’d LOVE to rid myself of benzodiazepines, but I’ve yet to find a substitute, natural or pharmaceutical, to help. I’ve gone the GABA route, along with phosphatidylserine, 5-htp, and combinations. If you can provide a particular brand and strength I’d be willing to give it a shot. Thanks.

  4. Avatar Patient says:

    There are a lot of adults on ADHD drugs now. Aren’t they stimulants? I never see this addressed in articles about sleep hygeine.

  5. Avatar Lisa says:

    I’ve been doing all of these things for years. No coffee, no alcohol, no screen time after dinner. No eating after 7pm. No naps. All of it. I never had trouble sleeping until I went through menopause. Even with RLS drugs, which by nature of what they do, are sleep helpers, I still don’t sleep. I’ve had 9 hours of sleep in the last 3 nights. Miserable!

  6. Avatar Loobitar says:

    I always exercise very late in the evening (and I can’t change that now, because those are the times I have my lessons). I have been eating some protein after exercising, but that means I eat it right before sleep. What should I do, what should I eat?

    • Avatar DLOWE says:

      You should be fine provided you aren’t exercising right before you hop into bed.

      Exercise boosts your metabolism for 30-60 minutes, and that’s when you should be doing your protein. Provided you have 2 or 3 hours before sleeping after exercise, you should be okay.

  7. Avatar Dlowe says:

    While I think most people can agree with articles like these, where getting a good 8 hours is essential to health, I’ve always found it laughable how unscientific they are. It’s the same studies being passed around and recycled for what seems like decades.

    Why has no one gone out and done a legitimate study on this? Sleep isn’t some extreme switch where you’re either asleep or awake and that’s it. There are different phases of sleep and any data in these current studies are inherently skewed without actually observing the real sleep that is going on.

    What if someone in the study gets 8 hours of sleep, has no insulin resistance, no increase in BMI but actually never went through REM or Deep Sleep phases once in those 8 hours? It would be more indicative that the conclusions are simply laying relatively still for 8 hours has these same benefits

  8. Avatar Prince Rasiel says:

    One thing I always hope these studies would address is something I’ve noticed when I do or don’t sleep. I weigh myself in the mornings, and I’m on a low-carb diet. Regardless of if I’ve slept a lot or a little, I’m going to eat the same things on my meal plan. So the ‘staying up and eating junk the next day’ doesn’t apply to the pattern I’m seeing, which is: When I get a full night’s sleep, I seem to lose a little more water weight. I can’t tell if this is from having water before i sleep (i take some pills for various things), or if it’s a result of my body being in a state where it can burn more fat. To be honest I don’t know enough about how to measure that scientifically. But I definitely have a better overall track record through the week if I’m getting to bed on time.

  9. Avatar AlisaInWonderland says:

    This IS true, except that you don’t need to increase calorie intake to gain weight when you don’t sleep. I’ve tried it. My life isn’t kind to me and I’ve gone to work on 2 hours of sleep. And the next day I’m up 2 pounds even though I exercised and ate the same as any other day (when I don’t gain weight).
    Cortisol, glucocorticoids and sometimes even mineralcorticoids are the culprit.
    Sleep is heart healthy, it should be considered an act of violence if you don’t let people sleep.
    I don’t care if it’s a work schedule, noisy housemates/neighbors, etc.

  10. Avatar dlaciv12 says:

    I know I’m coming to this a little late but if you think it it’s important enough to write an article about why isn’t there a place to sync sleep data from so many apps out there?

  11. Avatar Joannah Cowart says:

    I agree with this mostly, the less sleep we get, the quicker we are to go to the easy heat up meals that take 5 seconds to turn on an oven, and 15 minutes to heat up whatever tan, already cooked food we have. The more tired we are, the less likely we spend time shopping for real food and the less time we spend actually preparing something that’s good for us.

  12. Avatar Medylife says:

    Good piece of work.There is absolutely no denying the fact that there is a definate connection between sleep and weight as elaborated in the article.Keep up the Good Work

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