Conventional wisdom says obesity is caused by bad eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle. However, numerous studies have shown that there are many factors that dictate and affect one’s weight. Genetics, ethnicity, lifestyle (eating habits and physical activities), socioeconomic status, culture, and family habits are just some of the contributory factors. Additionally, experts also believe that sleeping patterns can have a huge impact on one’s weight.
Is There a Link Between Obesity and Insomnia?
Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis does a lot of negative things to the body. For one, lack of sleep causes hormone imbalance that causes someone to eat more frequently and gain weight. Hormones called ghrelin and leptin fluctuate, creating a feeling of hunger.
A journal published at the University of Turin’s Department of Internal Medicine shows sleep deprivation is linked to increased levels of cortisol and a decrease of growth hormones; both factors are linked to obesity. Also, lack of sleep slows down metabolism.
Lack of sleep does not only affect the body at the chemical level. People who regularly suffer from insomnia and other sleeping problems also show increased tendency to choose high-calorie foods. Subsequently, food consumed late at night increases the risk of weight gain. This was shown in S M. Greer, A N. Goldstein & M P. Walker’s article “The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain.”
Those who get less sleep also tend to move less during the day and do not engage in exercise, possibly because lack of sleep leads to fatigue and sleepiness during the day. This is because obesity is linked to increased daytime sleepiness and fatigue, even in individuals who sleep straight through the night.
Obese individuals are also more likely to report insomnia and trouble sleeping than people of regular weight. This is because the condition changes their body’s metabolism and/or sleep-wake cycle in a way that negatively affects the quality of sleep.
Common sleep concerns associated with obesity
There are many health conditions that affect sleep, some of which are often found among overweight and obese individuals.
- Osteoarthritis – Characterized by worn down cartilage, this joint disorder disrupts sleep by causing debilitating pain.
- Asthma – People who are overweight and obese have higher risk of developing asthma. Some can experience worse asthmatic symptoms, particularly nighttime symptoms, leading to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) – This is a sleep disorder marked by a partially or fully collapsed airway causing breathing problems and loud snoring during sleep. Though weight is not the only contributory factor to OSA, overweight and obese individuals have higher risk and severity of this condition.
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) – This is a chronic condition characterized by stomach contents leaking into the esophagus. Obesity is a known factor of GERD, and symptoms like heartburn, which worsens when lying down, makes it difficult for someone to fall asleep.
- Depression – Obesity can cause and intensify depression and worsen its symptoms (i.e. weight gain). People suffering from depression also often suffer from insomnia.
Obesity and Insomnia: Which Comes First?
Obesity and insomnia almost always co-exist. But which comes first? Is one a product of the other?
While multiple studies show that poor sleep quality leads to increased risk of obesity by affecting appetite, an article published in PLOS Medicine in 2020 suggests otherwise. Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine in the University of Pennsylvania theorized that it is the excess weight that is causing poor sleep, not the other way around.
This study was conducted using microscopic worms called Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). They suggest that insomnia could be caused by a “signaling problem between fat stores and the brain cells that controls sleep.” This could explain why obese individuals suffer from sleeping problems.
It is important to note that this is just one study. However, this study is a step closer to understanding the link between obesity and insomnia and finding better treatment.
How to Get Better Sleep
Experts suggest the practice of “sleep hygiene” to help a good night’s sleep. Though it has been proven that weight issues make it difficult for people to get quality sleep on a nightly basis, good sleep hygiene makes it possible.
Here are some sleep hygiene tips to keep in mind.
Keep it consistent – Have a sleep and wake schedule and make sure to stick to it, even on weekends. This trains your body’s internal clock, making it easier for you to fall asleep and wake up at a regular schedule.
Make a relaxing bedtime routine – Unwind and relax one hour before you sleep. Take a warm bath or shower, do some gentle stretches to release tension from your muscles, meditate or do some breathing techniques, or read a book.
Turn off the TV – While watching TV sounds like a good way to unwind, it is not a good sleep hygiene practice. The blue light emitted by screens from electronic devices (TV, smartphone, etc.) signals your brain to reduce the production of melatonin (sleep hormones that controls your sleep/wake cycle). When your melatonin level is low, you will struggle to fall asleep.
Regular exercise – While you might be limited in your choices of exercises due to weight, you can always find activities that will help you sweat and improve overall health. Aerobic and low-impact exercises of around 30 minutes per day can improve sleep quality. It increases your body temperature and energy levels that trigger the release of endorphins.
Improve your sleeping space – Make sure your room is at the right temperature conducive to sleep. While this may vary from person to person, doctors recommend keeping the thermostat at 60 degrees to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 19 degrees Celsius).
Also, make sure your room is dark, with as little outside noise as possible. You can use earplugs if you want to.
Invest in a good mattress – Different people require different types, styles, and firmness of mattresses. Generally, you should invest in a mattress that supports the natural curvature of your spine and should not get too warm. Sleeping on a firm mattress, especially with adjustable firmness, promotes quality sleep by ensuring comfort through proper spine alignment.
Memory foam with medium firmness aids body aches and pains, making it easy to fall asleep fast. Some people, however, prefer the “sinking in” feel of soft memory foam, which helps keep a comfortable sleeping position and temperature.
Watch what you eat – A balanced diet and nutrition can ensure good overall health. But there are some foods that can promote a good night’s sleep. Almonds, kiwis, nuts, tart cherries, warm milk, fatty fish, and chamomile tea are just a few examples.
Also, avoid sleeping pills, alcohol, and cigarettes, as these can disrupt your body’s natural sleeping patterns.
Obesity and insomnia are quite daunting to handle. If you are struggling to cope with these conditions, your best course of action is to consult your physician and a sleep specialist. These medical professionals can help guide you with the right approaches and recommend the best interventions.