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Why sleeping less than necessary can make you gain weight

If many times we talk about the relationship that physical activity has and the rates of overweight and obesity, it is also necessary to establish and explain the relationship that lack of sleep (or reduction of hours of sleep) with overweight and obesity.

Specifically, the sleep factor is mainly related to two key hormones in the regulation of appetite: leptin (responsible for regulating the feeling of satiety) and ghrelin (responsible for doing the same with the feeling of hunger). Therefore, if we do not respect our sleep hours, we may be ruining our diet to lose weight.

Lack of sleep and hormonal regulation

The sleep cycle and hormonal regulation are two issues that may seem to us that are not related to each other, but are much more important than we can think. For this reason, when we say “I have four hours to sleep and I am worth it”, and we extend this trend over time (either at our own will or for work reasons), we are committing a serious error that can lead to an increase in the rates of overweight and obesity .

The reason for this is that during the hours of sleep two hormones, ghrelin and leptin , act regulating the sensations of hunger and satiety. How many of you have risen in the morning with a hunger that you would eat the whole refrigerator?

In addition, lack of sleep can cause changes in our intestinal flora , with the problems that this can bring.


Ghrelin is the hormone that regulates our appetite , that is, our desire to eat. The problem with this hormone is that when there is a reduction in the hours of sleep this causes an increase in its production , so that our body will demand food intake (normally with a high content of sugars and fats) .

To reflect on this, think: when do you wake up at night hungry, eat a piece of fruit or go straight for something more “dense” like cookies, sweets, processed foods …? Yes, some will say that you drink a glass of water and sleep, but most people seek a way to calm the feeling of hunger and eat the first thing they find, and unfortunately they are not usually very healthy foods.


Leptin is the hormone that is going to regulate our sensation of “being full” . The longer the time during which we have high leptin levels, the longer we feel satiated . During sleep, when there is a reduction in the hours of the same, there is a decrease in the segregation of this hormone in our body, so the so-called “window of satiety” is reduced and we tend to eat every so often, which makes us eat larger amounts of food .

If we add to this that the fewer hours of sleep we have more time spent awake, it gives us very low levels of leptin and a lot of time to eat. Without a doubt, an explosive cocktail.


This hormone, which we usually associate with stress levels, is also related to sleep-wake cycles , so it is a factor to be taken into account when we talk about the relationship between lack of sleep (which among other things can generate certain levels of stress in the absence of rest) and the increase in the rates of overweight or obesity (among other functions cortisol intervenes in the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

During the hours of sleep, this hormone is at its lowest levels (or at least in normal situations it should be that way as long as we do not have any hormonal alteration that could affect the segregation of cortisol or external factors that influence us) and leave rising as it dawns and the hour of awakening approaches. If these levels were not raised before we woke up, we could not wake up or wake up without energy and exhausted.

Given that high cortisol levels are associated with high energy levels (in addition to being related to stress), having them high at the time of going to sleep will make it difficult to reconcile sleep, which in the long run can lead to complications. more serious as it would be the need to take medication to fall asleep. One option that we can assess before having to get to the point of medicating ourselves to sleep would be to resort to supplementation with melatonin (a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles).

How our pace of life affects the sleep cycle

We live in a society in which the pace of life is frantic since we get up until we go to bed , and more and more people have some difficulty sleeping . The work, the family, the bills, the atmosphere in the city in which everyone is in a hurry and everyone wants to be the first in everything, the traffic jams … all these factors end up influencing one way or another in our hormonal system, usually in the form of stress, and as we said above, a high level of stress means high levels of cortisol .

Therefore, it is important to find some time during the day for us and try to relax : walk in a park, go to a library, listen to music, take a relaxing bath, perform an activity that we like … in order to try decrease stress levels and in this way at the end of the day have more options to reach a sleep-wake cycle that allows us to rest and recover.

Sleep disorders: insomnia and hypersomnia


It can be common in specific situations of high stress (exams, health problems, important life changes, etc.) but it can become chronic that is no longer directly related to the problem that caused it. So that we can talk about insomnia at the level of illness or disorder, it must occur in a “common” way (three or more nights a week).

Indicators of insomnia may be waking up involuntarily before resting six and a half hours, waking up several times during the night without being able to reconcile sleep again in more than half an hour or take more than half an hour to fall asleep at bedtime.


It is about the excess of sleep during the day and there are different syndromes and manifestations of different origins. For example, in the syndrome of narcolepsy-cataplexy is characterized by uncontrollable sleep attacks, episodes of paralysis during sleep, hallucinations the time of sleep and / or cataplexy (loss of muscle tone).

Another syndrome, sleep apnea , affects mostly (though not only) hypertensive and obese patients . In apnea, breathing ceases during more or less long periods of sleep, which can cause cardiac, neurological and social problems . There are medical treatments for apnea, such as the application of a continuous-entry oxygen mask.

Circadian rhythm disorders that can affect our hormones

Although over time the recommendations on the hours of sleep necessary to maintain adequate circadian rhythms have been varying, we can find some general guidelines established by the National Sleep Foundation on the number of hours recommended to sleep depending on our age .

  • Phase-lag syndrome : the patient falls asleep and wakes up later than the desired time, for a period of time exceeding one month. It occurs mainly in the adolescent population and in young adults (and in men twice as much as in women). Many patients have a chronic sleep deprivation due to the need to wake up in the morning to meet their social and labor obligations (could also be classified as a form of stress), so throughout the day they will present a picture of daytime sleepiness . In addition, it can cause a depressive syndrome .The patient will mainly refer inability to sleep or wake up spontaneously at the desired time, or excessive fatigue, in addition to being able to present a delay in the main sleep phase with respect to the desired sleep time. These symptoms should last for at least a month.
  • Jet-Lag : is characterized by a set of biological, clinical and social changes related to the rapid passage of several time zones , and is typical of intercontinental air travel. The rapidity of the displacements of great distances subjects the organism to an abrupt lag between its physiological hour with the local time of the country of departure and the time of the country of destination.Clinically speaking, it produces sleep disturbances (difficulty falling asleep and waking up) and asthenia (weakness or general fatigue that makes it difficult or impossible for a person to perform tasks that are easily done in normal conditions), as well as mood disorders, anxiety, decrease in physical and intellectual performance and, sometimes, digestive disorders . The intensity of the symptoms is proportional to the number of time zones crossed and the age of the individual.

    It also varies depending on the direction of the flight: journeys in the east(leading to an early sleep-wake rhythm) are more problematic than trips to the west (delayed pace). The efficiency of sleep decreases and the number of awakenings increases. Adaptation to the local time zone requires two to seven days depending on the duration of the trip and individual sensitivity.

    The symptomatology is insomnia or excessive sleepiness . The symptoms began one or two days after an aerial trip of at least two time zones.

  • Shift worker syndrome : workers at night or those who are subjected to frequent shifts of work shifts, usually show a pronounced deficit of hours of sleep , since daytime sleep is much more fragmented and less refreshing than nighttime, and This often produces discomfort, fatigue and irritability, a greater number of gastrointestinal disorders and greater desire to consume alcohol, and can lead to an indiscriminate use of sedatives or hypnotics in order to get to sleep.The symptoms occur especially during the first days after the change of shift. The situation can be worse if the worker does not follow a constant pattern throughout the week and only keeps the cycle altered on working days, returning to the normal cycle rest days and vacations.

    The main symptoms are insomnia or excessive sleepiness, and are associated temporarily with a period of work (usually at night) that takes place during the normal period of sleep.

  • Phase advancement syndrome : it is characterized by a need for irresistible sleep, before the desired time, in the late afternoon hours, and by waking up very early, at two or three in the morning with the inability to reconcile the dream. The person who suffers it often complains about the abnormally early time it wakes up. It occurs especially in the elderly and is characterized by the inability to stay awake until the desired time of bed or the inability to continue sleeping until the desired time.The symptoms must be present for at least three months and there must be evidence of an advance of time in the usual sleep period by polysomnographic control in a period of 24 to 36 hours.
  • Irregular sleep-wake rhythm : it is an alteration of the circadian rhythm of sleep due to a deregulation of internal biological clocks that “warn” of the time (for example the time to wake up each morning ), which evolves during a minimum period of three months, leading to a fragmentation of both daytime and nighttime sleep, which becomes variable and irregular.This anomaly of the temporal distribution of sleep has an important relationship with daily routines, so it can occur more frequently in people who lead a less structured life as students, unemployed, inadequate lifestyle (so frequent in young people they usually have irregular sleep-wake schedules), bedridden patients or those who lose these routines. If the total duration of sleep is within normal limits for age, it is not usually drowsy.

In individuals whose sleep is fragmented into three or more episodes during the 24 hours, insomnia and hypersomnia are observed . They present an irregular pattern of at least three episodes of sleep in the course of a 24-hour period for at least three months.

  • Free rhythm syndrome (hypernictameral) : produces a sleep-wake cycle of more than 24 hours, in one or two hours a day, so that sleep periods are spaced day by day and progressively disengage to the socially required. Periodically the dream recovers its normal nocturnal schedule, which has associated an improvement of the discomfort. This desynchronized rhythm of sleep is similar to that observed in individuals deprived of the main external synchronizers.This syndrome is especially frequent in blind people . In the event that it is not, a psychometric and psychiatric examination is essential to rule out psychiatric symptoms (mental weakness, schizophrenia, severe drug addiction) and a neurological examination with radiological techniques to investigate the hypothalamic region, in order to rule out neurological conditions of type tumor or lesive. The main complaint that usually refer is the difficulty in falling asleep or waking up.

    There must be a progressive delay in the beginning and end of sleep, with an inability to keep the 24-hour sleep-wake pattern stable for at least six weeks.


The patterns of sleep and rest , as we have seen, are more important than apparently people can think, as they will influence in one way or another in some of our hormonal regulation processes that in the case of not being ” “normal” may carry associated disorders and / or diseases more or less serious.

In addition, hormones such as leptin, ghrelin and cortisol , if their production rates are altered, will cause us eating disorders and, consequently, weight gain and all that it entails (increase in body fat, greater risks of diseases cardiovascular, increase in abdominal perimeter and risk of metabolic syndrome …).


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