Sleep Disorders and Weight Gain I What To Do

A growing body of research is finding a link between sleep disorders and weight gain. And it can be a vicious cycle. Insufficient sleep can lead to weight gain, which can lead to a serious problem called sleep apnea, which produces more sleep deprivation and more packing on of the pounds. What to do? Here are solutions.

While reviewing stacks of medical records from incoming guests several years ago, the physicians at the Pritikin Longevity Center noticed something peculiar.

A whopping 80% of guests reported that they had trouble getting a good night’s sleep. Not surprisingly, many also complained of problems caused by sleep loss, such as daytime fatigue, irritability, headaches, and foggy thinking.

Many were also overweight.

“If you don’t sleep well, you can’t get well,” sums up cardiologist and educator at Pritikin, Ronald Scheib, MD, FACC.

And being sleep-deprived can make it difficult to shed excess weight.

Sleep Disorders and Weight Gain

More and more research is finding that sleep disorders and weight gain go hand-in-hand.

In one study1 published in the International Journal of Obesity, for example, scientists from the University of Helsinki found that among 5,700 middle-aged women, those who struggled with sleep disorders were significantly more likely to struggle with their weight than their peers who got the recommended eight hours a night.

Concluded the authors: “Sleep problems likely contribute to weight gain. To prevent major weight gain and obesity, sleep problems need to be taken into account.”

In another study2 at the University of Colorado Boulder, Dr. Kenneth Wright and colleagues found that men who were forced to sleep only five hours a night put on two pounds within one week.

Explained Dr. Wright: “Just getting less sleep, by itself, is not going to lead to weight gain. But when people get insufficient sleep, it leads them to eat more than they actually need.”

Newly published research has also learned that the quality of our diets affects sleep. When we eat a healthy diet during the day, we sleep better at night. The converse is true: poor diets lead to poor sleep.

Hormonal Havoc

Exactly how lack of sleep affects our ability to control weight has a lot to do with our hormones.

  • Ghrelin – Two key hormones involved are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is a “go” hormone. It tells us to GO EAT. When we are sleep-deprived, research3 has discovered, our bodies produce more ghrelin.
  • Leptin – Another hormone, leptin, is a “stop” hormone. It tells us that we’re full and satisfied, and that we can STOP EATING. When we’re sleep-deprived, we make less leptin.Summing up: More ghrelin and less leptin equals weight gain.And weight gain, unfortunately, can lead to another sleep disorder, called sleep apnea, which robs us of even more sleep, which can lead to even more weight gain.
  • Insulin – Another hormone affected by sleep disorders is insulin, research4 is learning. When we don’t sleep well, our cells resist, or block, insulin’s efforts to ferry glucose into our cells. Yes, it’s as if sleep deprivation is making us diabetic.
    There’s more bad news. Insulin promotes the release of leptin, the “stop eating” hormone, so when we’re sleep deprived and our cells are rejecting insulin, our bodies make less leptin, which means more eating, and more weight gain.

Better Hormones, Better Weight Loss

The good news, counsels Dr. Scheib and the team of physicians at Pritikin, is that getting back to a good night’s sleep can help calm hormonal disturbances. No longer is your body fighting against you. Losing weight gets easier.

Plus, a good night’s sleep lessens fatigue, so you’re more likely to exercise, which certainly promotes weight loss.

Sleep Services Program

To help people struggling with sleep problems, the physicians at Pritikin have established a Sleep Services Program that identifies, diagnoses, and treats sleep disorders, particularly obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA.

Sleep Apnea

Dr. Scheib explains that people don’t sleep well for several reasons, including restless leg syndrome and menopausal hot flashes, but the most serious chronic problem, posing the greatest risk, is sleep apnea.

What’s heartening is that sleep programs like Pritikin’s can control the symptoms of sleep apnea very quickly – often in 48 hours. Patients tell their Pritikin physicians that their lives have changed immeasurably. They’re well rested. They can think clearly. “They leave Pritikin feeling much better,” observes Dr. Scheib.

If you have sleep apnea, you literally stop breathing during sleep for anywhere from 15 seconds to more than a minute – and it can happen dozens of times in one night. Each time, you emit a gasping, explosive sound as you struggle to recover, often unaware you’re doing it.

Chances are, your bedmate is well aware of these episodes, and fears you may never recover, “which is a very real fear,” states Dr. Scheib. “Sleep apnea is a leading cause of right heart failure and sudden death in the U.S.”

Neck Size Greater Than 17.5 Inches

The sleep disorder happens because the soft tissues of the mouth and palate fall back, temporarily blocking the breathing passages. A major risk factor for sleep apnea is excess weight. One of the simplest predictors of sleep apnea is a neck size greater than 17.5 inches.

Other risk factors for sleep apnea include: having a small upper airway (or large tongue, tonsils, or uvula); having a recessed chin, small jaw, or a large overbite; smoking and alcohol use; and being age 40 or older. Also, sleep apnea appears to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic basis.

Getting Thinner

“While there are many approaches to dealing with the problem, including surgery, the real treatment for sleep apnea is a sensible, science-based, healthy living plan like the Pritikin Program because it promotes long-term weight loss,” points out Dr. Scheib. “As soon as our patients here at Pritikin lose 10 to 15% of excess body weight, their sleep apnea tends to improve. Sometimes, it even disappears.

“But shedding pounds takes time, and sleep deprivation hampers weight-loss efforts. So we provide aids that immediately control the suffocating symptoms of sleep apnea. Sleeping well, people’s chances of losing weight improve substantially.”

No Sleep Clinics

To diagnose sleep apnea, people normally need to spend the night in sleep clinics for special testing, “which, of course, is a pain in the neck,” says Dr. Scheib.

In the Sleep Services Program at Pritikin, overnight testing is conveniently set up in guests’ hotel rooms. Explains Dr. Scheib, “The Snoring and Apnea testing profile we use gives us all the information needed to correlate low blood oxygen levels with defective breathing and establish a diagnosis.”


If you test positive, you can be fitted with a CPAP, which stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” It’s an air pump that very effectively maintains air flow while you sleep.

Many guests at Pritikin find they don’t need their CPAPs for long. Once they’ve lost about 10% of their body weight, they’re breathing well all on their own. They’re no longer relying on the CPAP “crutch,” as Pritikin alum Ron Holley found.

Best of all, they’re enjoying the countless other benefits of weight loss, which, of course, is what the Pritikin Program is all about. The Sleep Services Program simply helps them realize these benefits more quickly – and more easily.