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Sleeping off the weight: new research on the relationship between sleep and your metabolism

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In today’s world of lightning-fast communication and advanced technology, productivity is a priority for virtually everybody.  The focus on productivity often takes away from those parts of our lives that may seem less important but are actually essential to our health, such as sleep.  You may think that a few cups of coffee can compensate for a lack of sleep, but new research reveals that prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain and a slower metabolism.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Eve Van Cauter talks about the importance of having healthy sleeping habits for dietary and digestive health.  Van Cauter is professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and director of the university’s sleep metabolism and health center.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Van Cauter.

Van Cauter compares human behavior to that of other animals, which she says rarely get insufficient levels of sleep.

“The human is unique in sleep depriving itself.”

According to Van Cauter, the only times that animals lose sleep is either when there is a shortage of food or a stressful situation.  Such behavior can also be seen in humans, though much more frequently.

“Our biology is wired to interpret sleep deprivation as either corresponding to a lack of food or corresponding to major stress,” Van Cauter says.

Such behavior explains why the late-night bowl of ice cream can seem so appealing.

Hormones play a significant role in regulating the body’s food intake, and Van Cauter says that regulation of the hormones that control hunger and appetite starts in the brain, specifically the hypothalamus. 

In the hypothalamus are orexin neurons, which maintain wakefulness and become hyperactive when the body is sleep deprived.  When the orexin neurons are more active, they stimulate production of hormones that are associated with increased hunger and appetite. 

When more of these hormones are created, humans tend to crave sugary and fatty foods.  Van Cauter says the reason for such a dietary phenomenon is that the brain is fueled primarily by sugars and fats, and needs those to stay alert.

Because of sleep’s profound impact on diet, Van Cauter says the success of any weight loss plan is dependent largely on the amount of sleep that the individual gets.

Many people may experience difficulty getting the proper amount of sleep and may be inclined to look for other ways to keep the weight off.  Studies have shown that the hormone lepton can reduce appetite, but its use in overweight subjects is limited because they have a resistance to the hormone.

Van Cauter stresses that sleep is one of the best ways to maintain healthy digestive function, but it is not the only way.

“The control of hunger and appetite is not under the control of only one satiety factor and one appetite factor.  It’s [under] multiple endocrine control[s].”

Van Cauter says the amount of sleep necessary for optimum health is different depending on your age.

As with any change, adding more sleep to your day is difficult, but its benefits are significant.