06/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Feeling Fat? Forget Your Diet, Check This Out

I've blogged about the relationship between sleep and weight maintenance numerous times before. In brief: the more high-quality sleep you get, the easier it is to lose unwanted weight and keep that weight off. Restful sleep keeps your metabolism in check through a variety of biological pathways that can run amok when you don't get your ZZZs.

But here's more recent data to keep in mind (in case you still don't believe that sleep can be so gut-friendly):

  • In individuals under 40, a new study, which appears in the March issue of Sleep, shows a clear association between averaging five hours or less of sleep each night and large increases in visceral fat, or fat around the organs.
  • Minorities are disproportionately affected by a lack of sleep. Of the study participants under 40, minorities were the largest groups to report getting such little sleep.

So how does sleep deprivation lead to thicker waistlines? Ethnicity aside, three things will happen to the human body when it doesn't get its needed sleep:

  • You'll crave high-carb foods, and likely gravitate toward sugary, salty, fatty carbs (ahem: you'll want the cookies, chips, muffins, and scones -- not the kale and quinoa).
  • Your metabolism will tick down a notch so you won't burn as much energy.
  • You'll be tired enough to forgo exercise. (To add insult to injury, the Journal of the American Medical Association just released a new study among women indicating that a full hour of exercise a day is needed to fight oncoming flab. Got time for that?)

And all of that spells weight gain -- regardless of your genetic origins or which diet you choose to follow.

So many people focus on diet and exercise when they want to shed unwanted pounds. They turn to crazy programs, seek foods to amp up their metabolism and bat down cravings, pick up unrealistic exercise regimens, and generally white-knuckle themselves into a fleeting lifestyle of deprivations, restrictions, and boot camp.

But what if your solution were just a good night's sleep away? What if you could take control of your waistline just by logging a few more minutes (and for some, hours) of restful sleep a night? Something to think about. Try the following:

  • Knock at least three things off your To Do list every day.
  • Add 15 more minutes to the time you set aside for preparing for bed. If you rush from cleaning the kitchen to jumping into bed within 10 minutes, slow things down a bit. Aim to set aside 30 minutes to calm down and power down. No housework. No homework.
  • Set a bedtime boundary. Be in bed by a certain time in relation to your wake time to assure you get 7 to 8 hours, and don't let excuses keep the light on.

Lose weight in your sleep?  Maybe not.  Lose weight because you got your sleep?  Now there just might be something to that!

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

Follow me on Twitter:

This article on sleep and weight is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog: by Sleep Doctor Michael Breus, PhD.