I recently read this article about the connection of sleep deprivation and weight gain, and wanted to share my perspective. The article discussed primarily the hormones, ghrelin and leptin, and how they are affected by lack of sleep, essentially contributing to weight gain.

Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates appetite (especially for high-caloric foods) and leptin is a hormone that signals satiety. The theory here is that sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels while decreasing leptin levels and therefore increasing appetite, especially for carbohydrate-rich and fatty foods.

This phenomenon has been widely discussed in many scientific studies and articles in various shapes or forms, and is commonly used to explain why chronic sleep loss can, and usually does, contribute to weight gain. Interestingly, many other studies show that the connection between theses two hormones, lack of sleep, and weight gain is not clearly understood at all. Examining subjects suffering from chronic sleep apnea, Dominic Roca, MD, director of the Connecticut Center for Sleep Medicine at Stamford Hospital, found that these individuals, who are also more likely to be overweight, show uncharacteristically high levels of leptin.

To this date many experts agree that ghrelin and leptin are only part of the answer and that, as Colette Bouchez, MD puts it, “all the research on sleep and weight has to be viewed with a cautious or skeptical eye.” Clearly, other factors have to be considered in this matter as well. Let’s look at some of them.

Sheer fatigue resulting from chronic lack of sleep will cause an individual to exercise less and crave more stimulants and other high-sugar foods. The stress resulting from sleep deprivation will cause glucocorticoid levels in the bloodstream to rise (Sleep ISSN 0161-8105 CODEN SLEED6 1997, vol. 20, no 10, pp. 865-870 (31 ref.)). Glucocorticoids increase levels of leptin in the bloodstream while at the same time decreasing the efficacy with which leptin blunts appetite in the brain. Certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and beta-endorphins are in higher demand in times of sustained stress. A deficiency in those types of chemicals could lead to cravings for sugar and fatty foods alone.

Whatever the whole truth is, sustained lack of sleep is very unhealthy. Studies show that men, for example, who are suffering from chronic insomnia are at a four times higher risk to die prematurely than men with normal sleep patterns. Yet, many people downplay, ignore, or learn to live with chronic sleep problems. This is unfortunate, especially since Chinese medicine and acupuncture are highly effective in treating this problem at its’ root cause. In case you know someone who is suffering from chronic sleep problems, sharing these insights might be able to make a big difference in their life, not just in their weight.