For those who want to slim down, an activity that involves lying down should be one of the things you prioritize during your quest to drop pounds.
And yet it’s surprising how many of us forgo or skimp on this low-effort opportunity to rebuild multiple key components in our cells<sup>1</sup>, maintain proper immune, molecular and neural function, avoid impaired cognitive and motor function<sup>2</sup>, and enhance mood, alertness, and physical performance<sup>3</sup>.
As a society, over time, we get less and less sleep. In 1998 only 35% of Americans were getting eight hours of nightly sleep; by 2005, that number had fallen to 26%<sup>4</sup>. The National Sleep Foundation updated its shut-eye recommendation for adults to seven to nine hours per night<sup>5</sup>, acknowledging that duration outside of these bounds could be appropriate for some.
With the popularity of scrolling through TikTok and Instagram near bedtime, catching up on work emails and projects after putting the kids to bed, or sprawling on the couch for a Netflix binge, the percentage of Americans getting enough quality sleep likely will continue to decline.
Trading enough-for-you quality sleep for other “productive” and intentionally unproductive activities can not only make you cranky and fatigued the next day, but can also impact your waistline.
Here are 10 simple strategies to help improve your sleep:
1. Set a Sleep Schedule, and Follow It
According to Matthew Walker’s best-selling book Why We Sleep, stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. As creatures of habit, people have a hard time adjusting to changes in sleep patterns. Sleeping later on weekends won’t fully make up for a lack of sleep during the week and will make it harder to wake up early on Monday morning.
Set an alarm for bedtime. Often we set an alarm for when it’s time to wake up but fail to do so for when it’s time to go to sleep.
If there is only one piece of advice you remember and take from these tips, this should be it.
2. Wind Down
Sixty to 30 minutes before bedtime, start your wind-down routine. Turn off your TV. Place your smartphone across the room or in another room so you won’t be tempted to check it as you try to fall asleep or in the middle of the night.
Consider reading a bound book or magazine (the old-fashioned way). What you read also makes a difference; stay away from content that activates or disturbs you.
If your mind races and keeps you awake, keep a journal by your bed and:
- Write down your worries—what’s nagging you, what issues didn’t get resolved, what triggered you today
- Make a to-do list for tomorrow so those “I forgot to do this” moments don’t wake you up.
3. Block Blue, Dim Bright Lights
The presence of light sources during our sleep can disturb our circadian rhythms and keep us from staying asleep. Invest in black-out shades for your windows or in a light-blocking night mask. If you have alarm clocks with bright displays, put them out of sight.
Wear blue-light-blocking glasses at night to dim the impact of light from screens and ambient light, if possible. Turn on night mode on your mobile devices, which dims the intensity of the light emitted by the screen and turns off notification sounds.
Conversely, expose your eyes to bright light—ideally, light from the sun—in the morning shortly after you wake. Avoiding bright light at night and exposing your eyes to bright light in the morning can ensure the proper release of melatonin<sup>17</sup>, a hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle.
So, instead of streaming and scrolling, take a warm bath, sip caffeine-free tea, read a book you hold in your hands, do a gentle yoga flow or meditate, read to the kids, talk to your partner, and relax.
4. Hydrate Early
Hydration is an important part of regulating your glucose and losing weight<sup>18</sup> but when you drink—or, rather, stop sipping—can prevent numerous sleep-disrupting trips to the bathroom during the night. Experiment with the best time to stop drinking water before bed to find your best hydration/sleep strategy.
5. Try to Avoid Food-Related Sleep Spikes
There’s a significant association between sleep and glucose control<sup>19</sup>. To keep your glucose from spiking overnight, consider these strategies:
- Finish eating at least three hours before bedtime. Doing so gives your body time to digest before you fall asleep.
- Avoid carb-heavy meals and sugary treats in the evening.
- Take an evening walk after dinner; it’s a great way to burn off any excess glucose circulating in your system.
- Avoid alcohol in the evening. Your body metabolizes alcohol first, which might lead to delayed glucose spikes from any carbs you consumed with your alcoholic beverage.
6. Cool Down
Our bodies tend to cool off during the night, which is why warm ambient temperature can disrupt sleep. This 2012 study<sup>20</sup> found that your room temperature is one of the most important factors in a good night’s sleep. The optimal room temperature for sleep is 65 degrees.
Partner permitting, lower that thermostat before bedtime or consider investing in a cooling pad or bed fan for your side of the bed.
Another suggestion from Walker’s Why We Sleep: Consider taking a hot bath before bed. It may sound paradoxical, but the drop in body temperature after getting out of the bath may help you feel sleepy, and the bath can help you relax and slow down so you’re more ready to sleep.
7. Chill Out
Meditation, stretching, or breathwork can help you wind down and signal to your brain that it’s time to relax. Try this mobility flow<sup>21</sup> on your bed, this 10-minute evening yoga stretch<sup>22</sup>, or this 10-minute meditation<sup>23</sup> before you sleep.
Even a simple five-minute foam rolling routine before bed not only helps ease sore muscles but also relaxes you enough to ease into sleep. This video provides a quick foam rolling routine<sup>24</sup> to work out those kinks and get to sleep.
8. Try Out Evening Exercise
Exercise, but time it right. A review of 23 studies found that evening exercise positively impacted sleep overall. Still, sleep onset, total sleep time, and sleep efficiency could be adversely affected by vigorous exercise performed less than an hour before bedtime.26
9. Create a Soothing Sleep Oasis
Splurge on a comfy mattress, pillows, sheets, and blankets. Add a white noise machine, play soothing rain or water sounds, block any lights by wearing an eye mask, or get room-darkening curtains. We get better sleep in cooler temperatures, so adjust your thermostat or check out tech that cools your mattress if you can swing it, price-wise.
10. Get Some Morning Sun
Get outside within 30 minutes of waking to let sunlight into your eyes. Don't stare directly at the sun, of course, but let the morning light flood your eyes, even if it's cloudy. This helps get circadian rhythms back in order.25
Why Sleep Matters for Metabolic Health and Weight Loss
Sleep plays a significant role in maintaining a healthy weight. An observational study of over 68,000 nurses (part of the Nurses Health Study), found that participants who slept five hours or less a night were 15% more likely to be obese<sup>6</sup> than those sleeping over seven hours. The study also found that short-sleepers had a 30% higher risk of gaining over 30 pounds during the 16-year study.
On the extreme end of the no-sleep spectrum, one study of 28 healthy volunteers kept awake for three to five days showed a change in the participants’ glucose tolerance curve to a prediabetic one with significantly higher glucose values and no hypoglycemic plunge<sup>7</sup> after the spike. Granted, you’re probably not planning to skip sleep for four straight days, but it’s fascinating nonetheless to see how quickly severe sleep deprivation can alter a healthy person’s metabolism.
How does less sleep over time affect your metabolism—particularly how your body processes sugar, or glucose, from the foods and drinks you consume? Lab studies of healthy young adults exposed to recurrent partial sleep deprivation showed decreased glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity<sup>8</sup>.
Lowered glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, and insulin resistance<sup>9</sup>, as well as less-than-optimal thyroid function<sup>10</sup>, make it harder to burn fat and lose weight. These issues can occur for a variety of reasons, one of which is insufficient sleep. Poor sleep and a sleep-deprived state alter your body’s ability to manage blood sugar<sup>11</sup> the way it should, which can lead to weight gain.
Also at play in the connection between short sleep and weight gain are two key hormones: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin, produced in your body’s fat cells, sends a signal to your brain when you’re full, stopping you from overeating. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces less leptin, which could cause you to eat more to feel full.
Lack of sleep also increases the production of the hormone ghrelin, nicknamed “the hunger hormone.” Insufficient sleep causes your stomach to send a signal via ghrelin that you’re hungry<sup>12</sup> and… you guessed it, you eat more.
This one-two punch thrown by leptin and ghrelin leads to eating more and gaining weight after poor sleep<sup>13</sup>.
But don’t stress out if you get one night of bad sleep. One study revealed that sleep loss is associated with activation of the body’s stress system but not sleep loss per se (although leptin levels increased significantly after one night of total sleep loss) may lead to increased hunger and appetite, and hormonal changes<sup>14</sup> that can trigger comfort-food cravings and weight gain.
In addition to the impact on your glucose and hormones, sleep loss can make it harder to lose weight because:
<ul role="list"><li>You may feel too tired to exercise and expend less energy overall<sup>15</sup></li><li>You may give in to the snack monster—garish ghrelin—and graze even if you’re not truly hungry</li></ul>
One study tested how six hours of sleep versus four hours of sleep impacted snacking behavior. The odds of participants eating a snack on four hours of sleep were significantly greater—and the sleepy noshers opted for a sweet snack<sup>16</sup> more often than a savory or “healthy” snack. Talk about a double-whammy to your body’s glucose.
Ward off these weight loss debacles with our tips for getting more and better quality sleep.
4 Frequently Asked Questions About Sleep and Weight Loss
Answered by Dr. William Dixon, MD, emergency physician
Can sleeping more help you lose weight?
There is, of course, a limit to how much sleeping can help you lose weight, but adequate sleep is a crucial part of both general health and any weight loss effort. In general, adequate sleep is approximately 7–9 hours of quality sleep per night for an adult. This will differ on an individual basis. Sleep is related to both energy intake and energy expenditure, from a hormonal regulation perspective and from how it influences the daily decisions made about diet and physical activity. Adequate sleep might help people lose a higher percentage of fat loss per pound of weight loss, and inadequate sleep may predispose people to weight gain after a successful weight loss effort.
How can sleep support weight loss?
Adequate sleep is only one factor that contributes to weight loss or maintenance of a healthy weight. There is a lot of epidemiological data that reduced sleep is associated with higher BMI, obesity, and weight gain over time. People who sleep less generally eat more calories per day, and may burn less calories per day. Decreased sleepers may eat more calories during an eating period and also have more opportunities to eat (especially after dinner, for example, high calorie midnight snacks). Energy expenditure may be decreased both from a lower baseline metabolic rate and decreased interest in pursuing physical activity when already tired. Increasing sleep may also decrease appetite, especially for sweet and salty foods. These factors can lead to decreased ability of your body to manage glucose swings and excess energy intake. Couple that with an increased desire to eat foods that are on the more unhealthy side, and you can see the contributors that influence both sides of the energy balance equation.
What are some good sleep habits to get into to support weight loss?
One can break down sleep into three components: Quantity, quality, and circadian rhythm matching. Quantity means an average of 7–9 hours of sleep per night for most people. This means going to bed at a similar hour, avoiding late-night screen time and caffeine, no naps during the day—the usual things you hear. An underrated tip: If you are a habitual “snooze button” presser, set an alarm at the latest you’d wake up, and then make sure to stick to that. If you happen to wake up earlier feeling refreshed, feel free to use that time for an extra stretch, family time, or other creative activity.
For quality, the first thing to check: Do you may have obstructive sleep apnea? Obstructive sleep apnea is strongly correlated with excess weight and can reduce the quality of sleep. It’s a condition that should be diagnosed and treated. Second, prioritize a very dark and colder room with minimal distractions (phone on silent). Third, watch how food and alcohol affect your sleep. While the effects of alcohol are well known, food is a bit more variable. For example, a carb-heavy dinner will help put me to sleep, but I won’t stay asleep as well.
The third tip is to figure out your circadian rhythm and do your best to sleep in that general time. Interestingly, even a reduced sleep period, as long as it is within your body’s preferred sleep hours, seems to be better than more sleep at the wrong time. Shift work is notoriously difficult on your metabolism, for example, precisely because it interferes so greatly with your circadian rhythm. There is a ton of interesting research being done around this now.
How does sleep impact our hormones related to weight loss (like ghrelin and leptin)?
Leptin is a hormone that generally tells your body when you are full, and on average seems to decrease when you are in a sleep deficit. Ghrelin is a hormone that is released by your stomach to make you feel hungry, and on average seems to be released more when you are in a sleep deficit. So by these two mechanisms you’d be more hungry, and less full after eating, indicating that you’d probably want to eat more. Indeed, people often show a preference for high-fat and high-sugar food after sleep restriction. After an exhausting night shift, I don’t go home and make myself a healthy egg white frittata. However, because hormonal variability between people is so high and the effects of sleep on ghrelin and leptin vary from study to study, there are likely other processes that contribute to increased caloric intake in the setting of decreased sleep. For example, sleep-deprived decisions about portion size, what you buy at the grocery store, desire to exercise… all sorts of things!
Sleep and Weight Loss: Key Takeaways
- Sleep is a critical factor for weight loss and health.
- Lack of sleep causes the release of two hormones (leptin and ghrelin) that may cause you to eat more than you would with a good night’s sleep.
- Short or disrupted sleep is also associated with poor glucose regulation, hypertension, and cognitive issues.
- You can take control of your sleep by sticking to a set bedtime schedule, creating a wind-down routine, modifying your sleep environment, and finding ways to relax before bedtime.
For Advanced Signos Users
If you’ve had a poor night of sleep, pay attention to your glucose readings in the morning. Eat the same breakfast you’ve eaten after a night of good sleep. Do you notice higher readings for your breakfast after not sleeping well?
Go back through your daily data in the Signos app and compare how much you ate, what you ate, and your glucose numbers for days after good sleep and poor sleep. Do you notice any trends?
<p class="pro-tip">Read next: How to Not Wake Up Tired</p>
Get more information about weight loss, glucose monitors, and living a healthier life
Topics discussed in this article:
- Smith, S., & Trinder, J. (2005). Morning sunlight can phase advance the circadian rhythm of young adults. Sleep and Biological Rhythms, 3(1), 39-41.
- Stutz, J., Eiholzer, R., & Spengler, C. M. (2019). Effects of evening exercise on sleep in healthy participants: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 49(2), 269-287.