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How Important is Sleep? Manage Weight Beyond Diet and Exercise

At Chain Effect, our certified nutrition counselors are often asked the question, “How can I lose weight beyond diet and exercise?” Here, our expert dietitian Mariel Gampe provides the answer.

One of the often overlooked aspects of a healthy lifestyle is sleep. We focus on diet and exercise, forgetting that a good night’s sleep is equally important for overall well-being. I’ve recently had the opportunity to look into the relationship between sleep, circadian rhythms, and metabolic health. Their influence on insulin regulation and weight management is fascinating. Understanding the intricate connections of the body empowers individuals to make informed lifestyle choices. By incorporating sleep hygiene practices into our daily routines, we can enhance our overall well-being and reduce the risk of metabolic disorders.

When discussing sleep, it doesn’t take long for circadian rhythm, Zeitgeber, and the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) to come into the mix. Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour cycles of physiological changes in our body, synchronized by external cues known as Zeitgebers. The suprachiasmatic nucleus, located in the brain’s hypothalamus, serves as the master clock, coordinating and orchestrating these internal timekeeping processes. The most important way we regulate our internal clocks is through light cues. Our eyes are responsible for carrying the light input to our SCN. Within our eyes, there is a pathway that regulates melatonin, tryptophan, and serotonin. These hormones and amino acid levels will shift depending on the time of day and season, allowing us to get an adequate night’s rest. When we experience a disruption in our light cues, many additional pathways are thrown off track. All cells of the body have clocks, and these intricate mechanisms play an essential role in coordinating every task needed in a 24 hour period.

The Role of Sleep in Insulin Regulation

Insulin is needed for glucose metabolism, and disruptions in circadian rhythms across the body can impact its regulation. Pancreatic beta cells, responsible for insulin production, have their own circadian clocks. These clocks control the transcription of genes related to insulin secretion, influencing the body’s ability to regulate blood glucose levels. Circadian clocks in skeletal muscles affect insulin-stimulated glucose uptake and utilization. This directly impacts post-meal glucose clean up, known as autophagy, which highlights the importance of maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm. The liver’s circadian clocks regulate glucose production and lipid metabolism. Disruptions in these clocks can affect insulin-mediated suppression of glucose production, contributing to metabolic imbalances.

Our cellular clocks are more sensitive to insulin in the morning and during the daylight hours as opposed to in the evening and into the night. The interplay between circadian disruption and insulin regulation can help us understand and address the risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Research suggests that maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm may be a key factor in preventing metabolic disorders.

How Weight Management is Impacted By Sleep

Several lifestyle factors contribute to obesity and other adverse metabolic outcomes. These include dietary intake, physical activity, insufficient sleep, and circadian misalignment. Understanding how these factors intersect with circadian rhythms provides valuable insights into holistic approaches to wellbeing. Insufficient sleep and circadian misalignment are common in today’s fast-paced world. The negative effects of insufficient sleep on health are well-documented (obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and depression).

Circadian misalignment, where our internal body clocks are out of sync with external cues, can also contribute to metabolic imbalances. It is these shifts in metabolic balance that can contribute to the inability to manage weight. One study highlights that circadian misalignment reduces energy expenditure throughout the day, alters levels of appetite hormones, and promotes unhealthy food choices. The study also distinguishes that sleep restriction increases the drive to eat, and excess food intake resulting from not sleeping enough is more related to cognitive control and reward mechanisms than to appetite hormones. Insufficient sleep also creates a positive energy balance (increases energy expenditure ~100 calories but also increases energy intake by > 250 calories per day).

How to Fix Your Internal Clock

To mitigate the adverse effects of sleep and circadian disruption on metabolic health, consider the following strategies:

Reduce screen time and be mindful of artificial light sources

  • Set phone limits for high use apps
  • Be mindful of “blue light” before bed and first thing in the morning when waking up (some use blue blocking amber glasses until the sunrise and after the sun sets)
  • Limit social media use daily
  • Strive to not use phone during meal times

Optimize Natural Light exposure

  • Although these are referred to as “sun viewings”, a cloudy day will still provide benefit
  • Make time to be outside during the day to support hormone pathways, particularly in the morning
  • Be mindful of sunset and leave adequate time to wind down before bed

Manage emotional stressors with effective strategies

  • Therapy (counseling, aroma, music, laugh, dance) whatever you like
  • Lean on support network of friends and family
  • Make time for social activities
  • Find hobbies

Reduce the use of substances

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Caffeine
  • Sugar

Engage in regular Physical Activity

  • What time of day do you workout
  • Which types

Healthy Eating Habits

  • Avoid eating late at night
  • Follow a consistent carbohydrate diet throughout the day
  • Set a meal schedule that works for your lifestyle

Professional Treatment

  • Seek professional guidance if sleep issues persist, as addressing underlying causes is essential for overall health.

Although diet and exercise go hand in hand with sufficient sleep and circadian alignment, it can be beneficial to explore this area of wellness through a different view. If we approach health from the realm of sleep and circadian rhythms, we may identify other useful strategies for reaching our goals. Let’s celebrate having many avenues to improve our well-being and strive for a balanced, holistic approach to a healthier life in 2024.

For more information on circadian rhythms, visit The Sleep Foundation or NIGMS

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Contact us to kick-start your journey to improved health today.


Headshot of Chain Effect's Mariel Gampe, MS, RDN, LDN.

Authored by:
Mariel Gampe, MS, RDN, LDN.

Mariel Gampe is our newest licensed dietitian, she began practicing as a dietitian in 2019, completing her bachelor’s, master’s, and dietetic internship at Appalachian State University.