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The Sleep-Stress Obesity Cycle


Stress and the lack of sleep helps make us fat. It’s a vicious cycle because stress leads to a loss of sleep and a loss of sleep leads to an increase in stress.

Sleep is a basic human need, and when we don't get enough of it, just about every aspect of our functioning is adversely affected. We move slower, thus burning a few less calories. We're less productive, which can be stressful on the job. We're more irritable and we tend to forget things, which adds to our stress. We make bad decisions, especially about the types of food we eat. These problems are made much worse when we don’t get enough sleep.

In addition to obesity, sleep deprivation has been linked to mood disorders, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, substance abuse, impaired judgment, reckless behavior, and increased accidents at home, work, and on the road. In fact, in the most severe cases of sleep deprivation, hallucinations and paranoid delusions can develop. Serious stuff, to be sure.

Stress influences human eating behavior, a causal relationship that has been demonstrated in animal and human studies. Stress appears to alter overall food intake in two ways, resulting in under- or overeating, which may be influenced by stress or severity. Chronic life stress seems to be associated with a greater preference for energy- and nutrient-dense foods, namely those that are high in sugar and fat. Evidence from longitudinal studies suggests that chronic life stress may be causally linked to weight gain, with a greater effect seen in men. Stress-induced eating is clearly one factor contributing to the development of obesity.

We know that there’s good and bad stress. A little stress is ok, indeed important in fight-or-flight situations, but the threshold from good to bad stress is easily breached. We all suffer from stress, whether it's brought on by our jobs, our personal lives or even just terrible traffic. Stress may be inevitable, but that doesn't mean we should just let it happen. It can take a very serious toll on our everyday lives, especially how stress affects our sleep.

According to the American Psychological Association's Stress in America survey, 43 percent of adults say that stress causes them to lie awake at night, and more than 50 percent of adults report feeling sluggish or lazy after a night of little sleep. While there is no magic number of sleep hours we should get per night (experts recommend between seven to nine hours), research suggests that Americans would be happier and healthier overall if they at least got an extra 60 to 90 minutes per night, according to the APA. We can’t get that extra time, however, when we are distracted by our anxieties and the uncertainties in our lives.

When we're stressed, our minds race with thoughts instead of shutting down at night, inhibiting important functions involved in memory, muscle repair and mood. When we don't get enough sleep, our immune system weakens just as much as when we're stressed. But those aren't the only ways stress affects our sleep and health.

Stress affects the quality of our sleep. Not only is stress stealing precious hours of sleep, but it also screws up sleep satisfaction. Approximately 42 percent of adults report getting only fair or poor quality sleep when they're stressed, according to the same Stress in America survey.

Stress could increase the risk insomnia. This is a particular concern for the chronically worried: Stress may not just negatively affect some of our sleep, it may rob us of sleep entirely, according to published studies.

Stress sends our brains into overdrive, preventing us from drifting off. When we fall asleep, our body switches from its active sympathetic nervous system to the calmer parasympathetic nervous system. However, this gets interrupted with stress. When we're overly worried, the sympathetic nervous system doesn't shut down, and our brains remain hyperactive, leaving us wide awake.

Stress creates a vicious cycle. If we are not careful, stress can be a catalyst for a vicious cycle of sleepless nights: We’re stressed, so we can't sleep, then our lack of sleep makes us more stressed, and so on, and so on. Medical experts report that nearly three-fourths of American adults say that their stress-induced sleep problems have caused an increase of stress or anxiety in their lives.

Sleep deprivation is a very serious health problem and so is excessive stress; each feeds the other and it’s a mix to be avoided.


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