How Obesity Affects Sleep

Mary Sweeney - Updated on July 12th, 2023

Being overweight can affect many different aspects of your life. Obesity puts you at a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other life-altering diseases. But did you know that obesity can also affect the quality of your sleep? It’s a vicious cycle – obesity causes sleep problems and sleep problems contribute to obesity. So, how do we break the cycle? What’s happening in our bodies to cause this? Let’s dive into the ways in which obesity affects sleep!


What’s Causing Obesity?

Obesity is an epidemic in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 39.8% of adult Americans are overweight, which equates to about 93.3 million people. The costs associated with being obese are astronomical, with an estimated $147 billion dollars spent on treatment of conditions related to obesity in 2008. With these numbers continuing to increase, we have a real problem on our hands.

Even with the popularity of boutique fitness classes and fad diets, rates of obesity continue to rise. Overall, physical activity levels of the average American are significantly lower than they were a century ago. The astronomical level of calories contained in the average American diet is also a significant contributing factor. However, these are not the only causes of obesity – the average American doesn’t get the recommended amount of sleep that is needed to be healthy, and the amount of sleep that you get per night is directly correlated to weight gain. According to Dr Kristen Knutson, a professor from the University of Chicago who carried out a study on the subject, “In the United States, 18% of adults are estimated to get less than 6 hours of sleep, which equates to 53 million short sleepers who may be at risk of associated obesity”. That’s a lot of people not sleeping!

How Does Obesity Affect Sleep (and Vice Versa)?

In addition to putting you at higher risk for conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, being overweight also puts you at very high risk for developing obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), insomnia, or restless leg syndrome. Let’s look at each of these conditions and how they affect sleep:

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): This is a condition in which a person may go for a period of several seconds without breathing while sleeping. When this happens, the brain sends a message to the body to wake up and breathe, which causes many interruptions in sleep throughout the course of a sleep cycle. Side effects of OSA include headache, fatigue, and trouble concentrating. Over 70% of people who are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea are overweight and have other chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and a history of stroke. The relationship between obesity and obstructive sleep apnea is a two-way street, where each of these conditions affects the other. People who are overweight are more likely to suffer from OSA, and those who suffer from OSA are more likely to have poorer sleep quality and are therefore more likely to gain weight. If you’re not getting good sleep because you have sleep apnea, you are more likely to be less physically active during the day. In addition, you may have an increased appetite – this means that less activity and more calorie intake equals weight gain.

Insomnia: Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep, even when the environment and conditions are just right. Causes of insomnia can be short-term issues, such as stress or an illness, while longer-term causes of insomnia can be things like shift work, unhealthy sleep patterns or habits, medications, or other chronic conditions. According to recent research, insomnia is much more likely to be reported in people that are overweight. Studies show that people who get less than 8 hours of sleep per night are more likely to have higher levels of glucocorticoids (like cortisol) in their bodies, which increases a person’s desire to eat foods that are high in sugar and fat, thus increasing the likelihood of weight gain. Conversely, people with obesity tend to have higher levels of emotional stress and depression, both of which contribute to poor sleep quality. Hence the vicious cycle.

Restless Leg Syndrome: Restless leg syndrome is a condition in which you experience uncomfortable sensations in your legs that are relieved only by moving them. These sensations often occur at night and can make it difficult to fall asleep. Restless leg syndrome can significantly affect the quality and amount of your sleep, which can negatively affect your weight.

So, what does this all mean? These three sleep disorders all negatively affect the quality and amount of your sleep. The less sleep you get, the more likely it is that you’ll gain weight.

What Can I Do?

The number one thing to do if you’re having sleep issues and trouble with weight gain is to consult a healthcare professional. Talking to your doctor about these issues is the first step towards regaining control over your health and identifying any underlying problems that may be causing your sleep disturbance. Here are some additional steps you can take to address these problems:

Talk to your doctor about CPAP. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a common method of treating the effects of obstructive sleep apnea. People suffering from OSA wear a face mask while sleeping. The face mask is connected to a mechanical pump that provides a flow of air into the nose or mouth, which keeps the airway open. This is one of the most effective and least invasive treatments for OSA, and most people who use it report immediate relief of sleep apnea symptoms and side effects.

Exercise. Getting out and staying physically active has been shown to positively affect the quality and amount of sleep, regardless of how much you weigh. In people with obesity, an exercise plan coupled with a weight-loss diet may help to increase metabolism, lower insulin resistance, and decrease inflammation levels in the body. All of these things contribute to weight loss and ultimately, a better night’s sleep. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any diet or exercise plan.

Stay hydrated. Staying hydrated has several health benefits, including helping to slow weight gain. Drinking the recommended 8 glasses of water per day can help you stay feeling full in between meals and can help you to consume less food during mealtimes. If you’re on an exercise plan, you'll lose a lot of water during your workouts, so replacing that fluid is vital. If you hate the taste of plain water, you have options! Try adding a slice of lemon or cucumber to a glass, or reach for unsweetened sparkling water if you’re craving bubbles. Avoid drinks with caffeine while trying to stay hydrated, as many of those drinks act as a diuretic.

Turn off the devices. Electronic devices with screens emit certain levels of blue light, which can make it harder for your brain to shut off at night and produce the melatonin it needs for your body to fall and stay asleep. Try to turn off phones and TVs at least 30 minutes to an hour before bed to give yourself time to relax and wind down.

Choose healthy food options. You don’t need to go on a special diet to lose weight, you just need to watch what you’re eating and make good choices. There are a lot of fad diets out there so remember to talk to your doctor before beginning a diet plan. Here are some ways to choose healthy foods:

  • Reach for whole wheat instead of white starches. This means choosing brown rice over white rice and making your sandwich with whole-grain bread instead of white bread. White carbohydrates are broken down into sugar much more quickly in the body than whole grains. This increases your body’s need for insulin to maintain blood sugar levels and can, over time, contribute to insulin resistance.
  • Pair your carbohydrates with proteins. If you are eating a carb with protein, it takes longer for your body to convert that carb into sugar. This means that instead of your blood sugar levels spiking rapidly and then falling quickly (which can lead to a “crash” feeling), your blood sugar level steadily rises and then falls little by little. This keeps your energy levels steadier, which makes you more likely to be physically active.
  • Stay away from soda and sugary beverages. Sodas and beverages with added sugar are empty calories – they provide no nutritional value and spike your blood sugar levels quickly, leading to a quick burst of energy and then a much longer crash. Choose water and unsweetened beverages instead!
  • Eat those fruits and veggies! Fresh fruits and vegetables are full of the nutrients that your body needs to be healthy. Add them to every meal to make sure you are getting your daily intake of vitamins and minerals.

For more information, see the resources below.

References And Continued Reading