Sleep better, weigh less

Nothing is worse than tossing and turning all night knowing you’ll be dragging the next day. If you’ve ever experienced insomnia or stayed up way too late, you know the symptoms of sleep deprivation: crankiness, lethargy and grogginess.

When you are overtired, do you tend to feel hungrier or reach easily for sugary, high-fat foods?   You are not alone. Studies show that lack of sleep, poor eating habits and weight problems all go hand in hand.

A recent Harvard study found that people who are sleepy by day are hungrier and more prone to eat high-calorie foods.  When researchers conducted MRIs of their sleep-deprived subjects, they found low activity in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain where critical thinking and decision-making occurs.  It seems people who are sleep deprived may have greater difficulty resisting the wrong foods.

Some theories suggest that lack of sleep causes stress on the body, releasing excess cortisol which not only stimulates hunger, but also slows downs metabolism. When metabolism slows you are more apt to store calories as fat than burn them for energy.

Lack of sleep is known to affect the hormones that control feelings of hunger and fullness.  Ghrelin, which is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, stimulates appetite, causing you to feel hungry, while leptin is produced in the fat cells and sends a signal to your brain that you are getting full. Studies have shown that people who are sleep-deprived have lower leptin and elevated ghrelin levels, setting the stage for overeating. Research conducted at the University of Chicago found that people who slept poorly were more inclined to eat sugary, refined carbohydrates.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 63 percent of American adults don’t get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night.  This suggested sleep time consists of about five 90-minute sleep cycles, each with a deeply restful rapid-eye movement (REM) phase during which more calories are burned than any other time during sleep. Disrupting or missing some REM cycles can lead to unwanted weight gain, and losing sleep night after night is known to have a cumulative effect.

There are many reasons why we lose sleep. One cause may be the foods we eat later in the day. Loading up on refined carbohydrates at dinner and sweets for an evening snack can pack plenty of calories and precipitate a sugar rush that makes it hard to get a restful sleep. Then after you’ve finally dosed off, as that sugar high crashes, your body’s craving for more sugar may be so strong that you actually wake up and go foraging for something sweet.

With summer fast approaching, getting fit for beach weather calls for healthy eating and plenty of quality sleep. Here are some tips for doing both:

Eat a balanced diet. Skipping meals and eating too few calories can cause nutritional gaps that affect sleep quality.  Iron deficiency has been linked to restless leg syndrome, for example, and lack of folic acid may cause sleeplessness. Foods rich in B vitamins, zinc and calcium are known to calm and relax, which promotes better sleep.

Go easy on caffeine, heat and sodium.  The caffeine in coffee and soft drinks remains in your system for up to 12 hours, so switch to water or herbal teas later in the day. Salty foods can cause blood pressure to spike and also cause dehydration. Spicy and fatty foods eaten too close to bedtime may cause indigestion.

Create a relaxing bedtime routine. Finish off the night with a soothing cup of chamomile or peppermint tea.

Try taking melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland in the center of your brain. Melatonin regulates the body's circadian rhythms; daily rhythms such as your sleep-wake cycle. The levels of melatonin in the blood are highest prior to bedtime. Melatonin may improve sleep by decreasing the actual time it takes to fall asleep, increasing feelings of "sleepiness," and increasing the duration of sleep. Melatonin has been used successfully to reduce jet lag during global travels. This natural hormone is also being tested as a sleep aid with the elderly and other populations.

Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, is a nationally known registered dietitian based in New York and the creator of a proprietary high-fiber nutrition program for weight loss, wellness and for treating various medical conditions. Tanya authored the bestselling weight loss book The F-Factor Diet, and she is the first dietitian with a national line of high-fiber foods, which are sold under the F-Factor name. Become a fan of Tanya on Facebook, follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn, and visit her website