Lose Weight While You Sleep!
October 03, 2005
By Jonny Bowden, M.A., C.N., C.N.S.
OK, OK, I know the title of this column sounds hokey, but don’t worry, this
isn’t the script for a late night infomercial advertising some miracle fat
burner that won’t work or some magic exerciser that does all the work for
you while you just sit there and watch the scale numbers shrink.
The fact is you really do have a serious ally in your quest to lower body
fat, and you’re probably not taking advantage of it. It’s not something most
people think of when they think about weight loss, it’s free, it’s widely
available, and it really does have something to do with sleep. And all you
have to do to take advantage of it is make yourself feel better.
I thought so.
To understand how it works you have to understand a hormone called cortisol,
and its relationship to fat, relaxation and sleep.
Cortisol is an hormone which is needed and used by every single cell in the
body. It’s made by the adrenal glands, two little nut shaped fellows that
sit on top of your kidneys. Among other things cortisol is an
anti-inflammatory (the widely prescribed “cortisone” is a derivative). But
cortisol’s most famous role is that of a stress hormone.
When your caveman and cavewomen ancestors saw a wild boar in the woods their
adrenals would shoot a load of cortisol into the system telling them in no
uncertain terms that the time had come to pick up a weapon or run like the
devil. Cortisol helps the body release sugar into the bloodstream, sugar
that can be used for the immediate energy needed for either of the above
actions. In fact, during any stressful time- including exercise, by the way-
the body releases more cortisol; hence it’s nickname as a “fight or flight” hormone.
Now don’t get me wrong. Cortisol is not a “bad” hormone. The problem comes
when there’s too much of it. According to Dr. Pamela Peeke, a leading expert
in the field, chronic unrelenting stress (of the kind most of us live with
everyday) can have a dangerous effect on the body. It makes you more
vulnerable to colds, flu, fatigue and infection, and, if that weren’t
enough, it gives you a raging appetite in the bargain. Why? Because one its
“purposes” is to help your body “refuel” for the next emergency. Hence, when
your body’s on constant cortisol overload, you eat. She calls this typical
reaction “stress eating”, and it has a solid physiological reason: as Dr.
Peeke explains, the foods you crave when stressed out (almost always
carbohydrates and fat) “replenish the calories used up during the stress
response- which, in simplest terms, is one of the main ways that activating
the stress response on a constant basis can make you fat”.
Now if stress is a factor in weight gain- and it almost certainly is a big
one- what’s the logical conclusion?
Reduce it! (and with it, your waistline).
Hence, the title of this article.
Most of the people I see and talk to are living lives that put an inordinate
amount of stress on their systems. They’re working too hard. They’re
managing too many projects (including other people’s lives). They’re
worrying too much. They’re sleeping too little. They have too little time
for themselves. Their poor adrenal glands, which were meant to simply be an
emergency system for occasional use, have been pressed into overdrive- their
owners are running on empty and refueling with junk to keep from noticing.
Is it any wonder so many of us are over-tired, sleep-deprived, immune
suppressed, depressed, frequently sick, and typically overweight?
So what’s the secret weapon? Simple. Stress reduction. (And by the way, one
of the biggest stressors is continual dieting and worrying about weight!)
Do some deep breathing exercises at least a few times a day. Find something
that gives you spiritual solace. Take care of yourself, not just in the
obvious ways, but in the ways that only you would understand.
And a good place to start is by changing your sleeping habits. Sleep experts
estimate that more than half of the US population is walking around in some
degree of sleep deprivation. The problem is compounded by our refusal to
take time for ourselves with activities that aren’t devoted to family or
work. Begin by going to bed earlier (staying in bed later is much more
difficult for most people). Try banning television from the bedroom. Take a
warm bath. Put on soothing music. Eventually, you’ll get the hang of it!
Reducing stress is not only good for your health, your immune system and
your psychological well-being, it’s good for your waistline as well. What
better motivation do you need?