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How Losing Sleep Affects Your Weight

Do you get less than seven hours of sleep per night?

If you lose sleep regularly, you might be stressing your body in more ways than you know. Your eating habits, metabolism, and health can suffer. Read on to learn how sleep affects your weight and what you can do to get your healthy weight goals back on track.

Lack of sleep affects everyone, but it particularly affects veterans:

  • Sleep is at the top of the health concerns year after year in WWP’s Annual Warrior Survey. In 2022, about 80% of the veterans WWP serves report poor sleep.
  • Seventy-eight percent of veterans get less than seven hours of sleep per night – in stark contrast to the 33% of the general population reporting they sleep less than seven hours per night.

Sleep More, Weigh Less

When you’re short on sleep, you might have less energy to exercise and less resistance to junk food. Being sleep-deprived can affect your ability to make good decisions. You might grab that donut and sugary latte thinking that’s what you need. Your brain’s reward center revs up, and you start craving high-carb snacks.  

Lack of sleep can also make your brain release cortisol, a stress hormone that signals your body to hold on to fat.  

Another important set of hormones sleep influences are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin tells your body it’s time to eat. When you’re sleep-deprived, you have more ghrelin and are likely to eat more.

Leptin tells your body to stop eating. And (you can guess what comes next) when you’re sleep-deprived you have less leptin – and less willpower to stop eating.

This combination of chemical reactions can contribute to weight gain, even as you try to eat healthier and move more.

Sleep deprivation can also affect your body’s ability to process insulin – the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar. Even one night of sleep loss can increase insulin resistance, which can increase blood sugar levels. This means that losing sleep can increase your risk of developing diabetes.

How to Steer Away from the Domino Effect Caused by Poor Sleep

Matthew Laurie, a wellness coach with WWP, says it’s common to see people turn to wellness coaching to lose weight and become more physically active, and then discover that quality sleep is a barrier to their goals.  

“Sleep is the foundation of any successful health and wellness program,” Matthew said. “There is no mechanism, process, or system within the human body that goes untouched when poor sleep is at hand.”

“What seems to get lost in the shuffle is how easy it can be to improve your sleep,” Matthew added. He explained that barring any underlying medical conditions or breathing disorders such as sleep apnea, a person can change their routine to help them sleep better.  

Even a person with a challenging schedule can take steps to improve the quality of their sleep and their overall health. Take for example veteran Chris, a fuel truck driver who works the night shift and is always on the go. Before he signed up for wellness coaching via WWP, his diet consisted of food commonly found at gas stations. He ate late and rarely sat down for a regular meal. He had poor sleep habits and no gym time.

After meeting with his WWP wellness coach, Chris started to plan his meals, cut back on soda, and started drinking more water. He is making time for the gym, and says his sleep is now “excellent.” He has steadily lost weight and is committed to his new healthy routine. 

Steps to Better Sleep

Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) helps veterans address sleep issues from many angles: benefits, physical health, mental health, PTSD treatment, TBI support, financial well-being, and access to care for the whole family.

Everyone’s situation is different, and WWP meets warriors where they are on their journey. But these are steps Matthew recommends:

  • Daily intentional movement – move more throughout the day to exhaust your body battery (building good sleep pressure). This helps set the stage for you to feel sleepy at just the right time.
  • Wind-down time – carving out time before bed to wind down and decompress is pivotal for flushing out stress and stress hormones. Lower stress levels allow the body to secrete more melatonin (the hormone that triggers feelings of sleepiness) and can mitigate the risk of insomnia-like sleep disruptions throughout the night.
  • Face the sun – sunlight is a major driver of wakefulness during the day, especially in the early morning. Being outside periodically, as well as being outside as the sun sets lets our brains know that it’s time to start winding systems down in preparation for sleep.

The Role of PTSD in Sleep Issues

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in anyone who experiences or witnesses traumatic events. PTSD can disrupt daily life and wreak havoc on a person’s ability to sleep.  

“PTSD and sleep share a close, reciprocal relationship, so paying close attention to how well warriors are sleeping should be a major focus of medical and mental health providers throughout treatment, not just at intake,” said Dr. Brian Klassen, clinical director at Road Home Program: The Center for Veterans and Their Families, at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, part of WWP’s Warrior Care Network.  

“Lack of sleep is often what will drive a warrior to seek professional help, so it is an important point of entry, even for warriors who are ambivalent about addressing mental health,” Dr. Klassen explained. “Sleep is so important in PTSD because it cuts both ways – poor sleep can exacerbate other symptoms of PTSD, and at the same time, being able to achieve healthy, restful sleep can help warriors manage the mental and physical effects of trauma.”

Warrior Care Network offers hope through a variety of effective options, and warriors can achieve restful, healthy sleep with customized solutions.

Solutions for Each Warrior

When veterans manage PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, and issues like sleep apnea there are multiple challenges to getting a good night’s sleep. Warrior Care Network brings together specialists from different areas to help veterans.

“Warrior Care Network’s holistic approach to treatment provides strategies and interventions that help improve sleep,” said Dr. Erin Fletcher, director of Warrior Care Network at WWP.

“Addressing one’s trauma through cognitive processing therapy or prolonged exposure therapy can help improve overall mood as well as sleep,” Dr. Fletcher added. “Mindfulness and meditation training can also help. Further, Warrior Care Network programming addresses physical health through exercise, yoga, nutrition education, and learning good sleep strategies.”

WWP programs help warriors with complex issues reach out for help and find solutions to sleep problems and other combat-related and non-combat-related conditions. Learn more about how WWP helps warriors and caregivers through mental health programs and PTSD treatment options at #CombatStigma.

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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