Getting more sleep could make it easier to control our weight

One could argue that our health is the product of factors that can be genetic (inherited) or environmental (including diet and activity). Body weight, for instance, will usually ultimately determined by these two major factors. There is no doubt that some people inherit more of a tendency to be heavier than others. Some people do genuinely have the ability to eat what and how much they like while maintain a rock-steady weight, while others eating the exact same diet may balloon in size.

Now, if we have inherited some tendency to being overweight or obese, that does not mean we’re destined to be overweight or obese. Usually, there’s considerable potential for controlling body weight using lifestyle related approach which include diet, exercise, and some positive psychology.

It used to be thought that there was not much we could do about our genes, however, recent discoveries in the field of epigenetics reveal that the influence genes have on our health is more malleable than previously recognised. This is a good thing, because it affords the potential for considerable control over health and wellbeing through environmental (including lifestyle) factors.

I was interested to read a recent study which explored, among other things, the genetic influence on body weight, and its relationship with a key lifestyle factor – sleep [1].

The study involved assessing the sleep habits and weights of hundreds of pairs of identical and non-identical twins. Studies on twins, such as this one, allow researchers to assess the ‘heritability’ of certain characteristics. What they discovered is that the heritability of body weight is not fixed, but varies according to how long individuals sleep for.

Specifically, for individuals sleeping less than 7 hours a night on average, the overall influence of genes on weight was 70 per cent. In those sleeping for 9 hours or more each night, the influence of genetic factors on weight was less than half this (32 per cent). In other words, the longer individuals slept for, the less influence genetic factors had on their weight and, we assume, the greater the potential for regulating weight through lifestyle adjustment.

Quite what it is about sleep that has this effect is not known. The author of an accompanying editorial makes the point that individuals who sleep for longer are essentially better rested, and may be in a better position to influence weight through healthy lifestyle behaviours. He also makes the point that healthy lifestyle behaviours, like not eating too big an evening meal, may in turn help sleep.

It may take time to dissect the precise relationship between sleep and body weight, but the message from this study is that getting a decent amount of sleep is likely to make body weight more controllable. Chances are, of course, that optimising sleep will give us
more control over other aspects of our health too.

I recently wrote a blog post in which I suggested a range of strategies which tend to improve sleep for those who have trouble here.


1. Watson NF, et al. Sleep duration and body mass index in twins: a gene-environment interaction. SLEEP 2012;35(5):597-603.

7 Responses to Getting more sleep could make it easier to control our weight

  1. Gys de Jongh 2 May 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    We have “clock” genes that influence our metabolism. Here is a recent example.

    Nature. 2012 Mar 29. doi: 10.1038/nature11030.
    Regulation of circadian behaviour and metabolism by synthetic REV-ERB agonists.

    Synchronizing rhythms of behaviour and metabolic processes is important for cardiovascular health and preventing metabolic diseases. The nuclear receptors REV-ERB-α and REV-ERB-β have an integral role in regulating the expression of core clock proteins driving rhythms in activity and metabolism. Here we describe the identification of potent synthetic REV-ERB agonists with in vivo activity. Administration of synthetic REV-ERB ligands alters circadian behaviour and the circadian pattern of core clock gene expression in the hypothalami of mice. The circadian pattern of expression of an array of metabolic genes in the liver, skeletal muscle and adipose tissue was also altered, resulting in increased energy expenditure. Treatment of diet-induced obese mice with a REV-ERB agonist decreased obesity by reducing fat mass and markedly improving dyslipidaemia and hyperglycaemia. These results indicate that synthetic REV-ERB ligands that pharmacologically target the circadian rhythm may be beneficial in the treatment of sleep disorders as well as metabolic diseases.
    PMID: 22460951

  2. Emily 3 May 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    T.S. Wiley addresses this concept at length in her book, “Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival.” She makes the case that the amount of darkness and sleep we get, via the impact on melatonin and consequently serotonin, dopamine, cortisol, insulin, and leptin, has a dramatic impact on our craving for sugar/carbohydrate and our body’s handling of sugar. Wiley’s other book (Sex Lies and Menopause) is heavily criticized, Lights Out is well-sourced and I’ve yet to see a medical professional call into question her logic or conclusions. She cites some interesting studies showing high circulating melatonin as protective against a wide range of maladies including cancer, heart disease, and obestiy.

  3. audrey wickham 4 May 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    My father was 6ft.5.5, was a City of London Policeman so did a month of night duty every few months along with shift work. He put one inch on his waist the last years of his life which ended at 83. His bones showed. My father could fall asleep anywhere and sleep until awakened; he ate oats with cream off the top of the milk and sugar, bacon, fried eggs, fried bread, mushrooms and grilled toms with sometimes bubble and squeak, with copious cups of tea with sugar for breakfast every day. Packed lunch when he was at work but a full lunch when at home. He had a great appetite. Never had colds or flu or anything to hospitalise him. But boy could he sleep.

    I have burnt the skin on my face and body so many times over the past 82 years I would expect to have skin like a prune. I haven’t – I have fewer lines on my face than any of my younger friends and without ever having washed off my makeup before bed or put anything more on it than zinc and castor oil ointment – when I think of it. I do wash in cold water without soap.

    I have a theory that what we worry about comes about. Too much attention on our body somehow gives it a prominence that it shouldn’t have. Forget it and get healthy!

  4. Angel 4 May 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    I don’t really know much about scientific researches about this things but as what I’ve observed from my own body’s response to this, I tend to gain weight when I have enough sleep 🙂

  5. Katrina Bourne 5 May 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    Oh Boy Do I Agree!!! My Dad was 8stone 7lbs when he died at 87!! He had ALWAYS weighed 8.5 stone all his adult life. He, too, had bacon and eggs for breakfast, sugar in his tea, (2 tsps), and after a good meal at night would go to bed with a pint cup of cocoa, made with full fat milk, and cheese and biscuits. What killed him was cancer brought on by a 20 a day smoking habit for 50 years of his life and the effect of crop spraying with DDT in the 1950s when he worked on a plant nursery. He worked out of doors all his working life and still was gardening, digging and planting, (and able to touch his toes without bending his knees) until just a few weeks before he died.

    I have suffered for over 30 years with IBS. I now know what the problem is. I have an intolerance to milk and yeast. Did the Drs tell me? NO. I had to work it out for myself and have a private test done to prove it. I now feel better than I have in 30 years and at nearly 60 have more of a life to live. I agree, get on with the important things and leave your body to get on with itself. It will soon tell you if things are right. My knees and wrists have been telling me that they have had enough of this wet weather!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Helen 8 May 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    I’m sure the research is sound, but in my own experience of 20+ years of sleep problems brought about by untreated apnoea, I find my appetite is usually suppressed in the morning. I don’t over-compensate later in the day either. After a rare, relatively good night, I find my appetite is better, but then so is my energy and I can move about more as a consequence. I am overweight, but other health problems contribute to that (hormone-resistant hypothroidism + severe ME).

  7. Katrina Bourne 8 May 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    I should think Helen, (my daughter’s name by the way) that your ME is your main culprit. With days when you feel you can hardly get out of bed won’t help you generate enough exercise to help you sleep at night. Has your GP helped you with your diet for your thyroid and advised on your ME? Some GPs still don’t see ME as an actual illness. There is a few good websites about ME. A friend of mine’s daughter had ME for several years before she was diagnosed and even now has what she calls her “colour” days. Bad is black, excellent white and various colours in between. Most days she is yellow or cream!!

    All the best

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