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The (Other) Essential Nutrient for Weight Loss: Sleep

Being healthy shouldn't mean losing zzz's. In fact, it starts with getting them.
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Vadim V via Adobe Stock Images

There's a theory that weight loss is 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise. It's a great theory. But this equation is missing a hugely important element of weight maintenance and weight loss: sleep.

Have you ever noticed that when you get less sleep you feel hungrier? Or if you get one of those coveted long, delicious nights of rest you wake up and you have a smaller appetite than normal? This isn't your imagination. It's your hormones. Specifically, leptin and ghrelin.

Leptin and ghrelin are two of the main hormones that control our hunger and satiety signals. I like to think of the latter as the little gremlin. Plenty of research has been done in recent years on the role these hormones play in our eating habits.

The ghrelin horomone is directly impacted by the amount of sleep you get. The less sleep, the higher your body's levels of ghrelin. On the other hand, leptin suppresses hunger. As you probably guessed by now, leptin increases proportionally to the amount of sleep that you get. So, more sleep = higher leptin = less hunger. It's important to mention that leptin and ghrelin, in addition to numerous other hormones, have a complex functionality that affects more than just satiety and hunger, though these are two of their key roles.

This hormonal interaction helps to explain why you may feel ravenous on the days you are sleep deprived. It's much harder to exercise self-control on Thursday afternoon when you've been getting up early to work all week and the sleep deficit is building. If you get enough rest, hunger will be quieted down, allowing you to make smarter food choices, like a piece of fruit instead of a candy bar. It does seem logical; if you're not allowing your body to get the rest it requires during nightly rejuvenation, it will compensate by stimulating you to get more energy in the form of food.

So what about all of those advice articles that tell you to wake up earlier and hit the gym? Unless you're able to get a full nights rest, you may want to think twice. If I have to, I always choose an extra hour of sleep. As tough as it can seem to fit it in, I'll try to arrange my schedule to get a workout later in the day.

So how much sleep should you get? According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults require 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Not six or less, like many Americans. More like eight. If you're not getting your minimum hours, you are sacrificing long term health for short term gain.

Being healthy shouldn't mean losing zzz's. In fact, it starts with getting them.

Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN specializes in helping clients reach their goals, including prioritizing sleep and healthy weight maintenance.

Follow Mascha Davis on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaschaDavis