12/04/2014 08:34 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

New Findings: Sleep Loss = Weight Gain

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Surprising new research published in the journal Cell shows that negative effects from irregular sleep patterns can be detected in the lowest levels of our biological systems, in our very microbes. In this astounding study, researchers found that volatile sleep and eating patterns in mice and humans led to negative metabolic changes in gut microbes -- changes associated with higher obesity rates, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and susceptibility to infection. Sleep matters.

Sleep is a trending hashtag these days. In my book Small Move, Big Change, I devoted a chapter to the power of sleep to boost life prospects and self-improvement efforts. Arianna Huffington's book Thrive was inspired in part by a personal crisis brought on from chronic sleep deprivation. And research continues to establish new links between irregular sleep, poor health, and weight gain.

Sleep and the Scale

The Cell article is the first to show metabolic disruption at the microbial level due to sleep disruption, but earlier studies also demonstrated that irregular sleep and eating patterns can result in weight gain. A study published in The International Journal of Obesity found that mice fed during daylight hours (the hours they normally sleep) gained twice as much weight as mice fed the same diet during natural waking hours.

Lack of sleep also can cause hormonal fluctuations that can make losing weight nearly impossible. Research conducted at Stanford University shows that sleeping less than 7.7 hours a night creates an imbalance in the hormones that regulate appetite and satiation so that you feel hungry all the time but the food you eat doesn't satisfy you. Once the hormonal deck is stacked against you -- appetite hormones at full blare and satiation hormones depressed -- it becomes far more difficult to stick with resolutions to eat more healthfully. But when you sleep at least 7.7 hours, your body's appetite and satisfaction signaling will reliably tell you when to eat and -- more importantly -- when to stop.

All three of these studies demonstrate the damaging effects of irregular sleep and eating patterns. Working the late shift or frequent air travel may disrupt our routines by necessity, but we also voluntarily create these negative conditions when we stay up watching television, eat late into the night, or stare into the bright light of the computer screen long past our natural bedtime.

How to Get More Rest, More Regularly

Sold on the value the sleep? Probably. Sleeping regular and adequate hours? Probably not. It's one thing to recognize that we need more sleep, and another thing to make it to bed in time to clock a full eight hours. Berating yourself to go to sleep earlier isn't likely to move the dial much. The key to getting more sleep regularly hinges on subtle changes in routine -- a few small moves can make a very big change:

  • Prepare early. Getting ready for bed long before retiring will ensure that once you're ready to drop you don't lose another half hour to clothes hanging, contact lenses, flossing, and phone charging.
  • Stay off the computer for the hour before bedtime. Late night leisure computing is a sleep slayer. Mindless surfing keeps you moving from page to page until you've frittered away the rest time you need to be successful tomorrow, and the screen's bright light can disrupt your circadian rhythm, leading to a fitful sleep once you finally slip between the sheets.
  • Stop eating by 8:30 p.m. Eating at night is a strategy to stay awake. If you close down the kitchen after dinner, you'll feel ready for bed earlier, sleep better (because you won't be digesting all that food), and you'll wake up truly hungry for breakfast, setting up a healthy eating pattern for the entire day.
  • Get ahead of the morning by preparing the night before -- lay out your clothes, pack your bag, or prep your breakfast. Whatever you manage to do tonight will speed your exit tomorrow and allow you to rest easier and longer.
  • Don't check your phone for messages just before bed. You might read something agitating, and if you answer, you'll find yourself wide awake once you hit send. Unless you're on call for work let it wait until morning.
The key to better, more regular sleep is reengineering your evening habits, one behavior at a time. Pick two of the microresolutions above (or come up with your own), practice them faithfully for four weeks, and you'll soon find your new routine naturally leading to more regular sleep. As this recent research shows, such changes could protect the very foundation of your health and help you to achieve your target weight.

Sleep it off!

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