Want to Lose Weight? Go to Sleep!

scaleNearly one-third of American adults experience insomnia at some point in their life — be it difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Additionally, recent obesity numbers indicate that two-thirds of Americans are either overweight (BMI of 25 to 29.9) or obese (BMI of 30 or greater).[1]

But what does one have to do with the other? According to a recent study, quite a bit.

Sick and Tired

For years, researchers have known that high stress often meant high scale readings. Studies have also shown that poor sleep is a risk factor for obesity.[2] Additionally, we know that more time watching TV or working/playing on the computer is associated with higher BMI and more body fat.[3]

On the plus side, research has shown that people who attend weight loss intervention sessions, exercise regularly, follow a food plan and keep a food journal are successful in losing weight.[4]

Given these previous findings, researchers from Oregon wondered what role all of these factors played in predicting a person’s ability to successfully lose weight.[5] Specifically, they wanted to know:

• Do sleep time, insomnia and time in front of the TV and/or computer predict success in a weight loss program?
• Do stress and depression further predict success?
• Do changes in sleep time, insomnia, time in front of the TV and/or computer, depression and stress affect weight loss outcomes?
• Do session attendance, exercise minutes and food journals correlate with weight loss?

The LIFE Study

Researchers reviewed results from participants of the LIFE study, a two-phase trial that examines two alternative strategies for losing and maintaining weight. The first phase involved 472 participants that were part of a non-randomized, six-month intensive behavioral weight loss intervention.

This included exercising at least three hours a week, cutting out 500 calories a day and following the DASH eating plan (focuses on fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts and limits fats, red meat and sugar). They were also asked to attend up to 22 group sessions led by nutrition and behavioral specialists, as well as keep a food journal.

Those participants who lost at least 10 pounds moved on to the second phase, which focused on maintaining the weight loss. For the current study on sleep, stress, “screen time” and adherence to the program, researchers focused on results from the first phase.

All participants were weighed at the beginning of the LIFE study, again at each group session, then again at the final session after about six months. They were also asked to fill out a variety of questionnaires that measured the following:

• Insomnia,
• Sleep time in a typical 24-hour period
• Average amount of time watching TV or working in front of the computer in a 24-hour period
• Perceived stress
• Depression

Researchers learned that 60 percent of the participants lost the 10 pounds over the course of six months and were eligible to move on to phase two. They also learned that participants attending an average of 73 percent of the group sessions and completed an average of five food journals a week. They also tended to exercise more than the suggested three hours a week, logging in an average of 195 minutes weekly.

Weight Loss Success Factors

When it came to the behavioral factors, things got interesting. Researchers found that sleep time was significantly related to successful weight loss. In fact, they found that those participants who slept between six and eight hours a day had higher rates of eligibility for phase two.

Even when stress and depression were added in, sleep was still a determining factor in successful weight loss. In fact, they found that those who slept less than six hours a day and had high stress scores were only half as likely to be eligible for phase two.

Additionally, stress level was also associated with weight loss. But this time, they found that as stress levels rose, weight loss was less. In other words, more stress, less weight loss. However, screen time was not related to weight loss success either way.

When it came to adherence to the program (exercise, keeping the food journal, and session attendance), researchers found that not only were they all related to successful weight loss, but they were positively associated with each other. Meaning that, participants that did at least three hours of exercise a week were also more likely to attend group sessions and keep a food journal.

They concluded, “Early evaluation of sleep and stress levels in long-term weight management studies could potentially identify which participants might benefit from additional counseling and resources.”

A Well-Rounded Program

If weight loss is one of your health goals, this study provides a great road map. In a nutshell, the keys are:

• Exercising at least three hours a week
• Keeping a food journal
• Getting between six and eight hours of sleep a day
• Reducing stress
• Attending weight loss counseling sessions

There are several programs that offer weekly weigh-ins and weight loss counseling. On the stress and sleep front, there is one supplement that may help both issues: L-theanine.

This fat-soluble amino acid works especially well if your insomnia is due, in part, to stress and nervous tension. L-theanine promotes mental and physical relaxation by stimulating the production of alpha waves, the brain waves associated with an awake, relaxed state.

Due to its role in the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), L-theanine also decreases stress. This is important, as GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that also blocks the release of the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine. In other words, GABA stops your brain from sending messages that rile you up, and instead promotes messages of calm and relaxation.

If you are interested in trying L-theanine, the recommended dosage is 200 mg as needed. For sleep, take 30 minutes before bed.

[1] Fiegal, KM et al. Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults. JAMA. 1999-2008. 2010;303:235-41.
[2] Gangwisch, et al. Inadequate sleep as a risk factor for obesity: analyses of the NHANES I. Sleep. 2005;28:1289-96.
[3] Pettee, KK et al. The reliability of a survey question on television viewing and associations with health risk factors in US adults. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2009;17:487-93.
[4] Hollis, JF et al. Weight loss during the intensive intervention phase of the weight-loss maintenance trial. Am J Prev Med. 2008;35:118-26.
[5] Eider, CR et al. Impact of sleep, screen time, depression and stress on weight change in the intensive weight loss phase of the LIFE study. Int J Obes (London). 2011 Mar 29. [Epub ahead of print].