Could a lack of sleep be making you fat? UPDATE

Since I wrote about this in May 2010, a new research study has come to light that reinforces my earlier conclusion – that your sleeping habits could be to blame for those extra pounds.

The research study, “Sleep problems and major weight gain: a follow-up study” by P Lyytikäinen, T Lallukka, E Lahelma & O Rahkonen (published online in the International Journal of Obesity on 8 June 2010), shows that middle-aged women who have trouble sleeping are more likely to gain weight than those who sleep well.

The study followed over 7,300 middle-aged (40 to 60 year old) women and men for five to seven years. The researchers found that the women who had reported suffering from “frequent sleep problems” (trouble falling asleep or staying asleep on at least 14 nights in the past month) at the start of the study were more likely to report a “major weight gain” (11 or more pounds) over time than the women who slept without difficulty. Even when other factors, such as physical and mental health and lifestyle, were taken into consideration, the link between sleep problems and major weight gain remained – for the women, anyway.

Strangely, there was no association found between the men with troubled sleep and major weight gain, however. Whilst the reason for this difference is unknown, it’s possible that the fewer male participants (1,300 men compared to more than 5,700 women) could have made the link more difficult to spot.

Lead researcher, Peppi Lyytikäinen, told Reuters Health that while the findings do not prove cause-and-effect, they raise the possibility that improving sleep quality might help stave off excess weight gain.

How to keep cool at night this summer

After a bitterly cold winter, it seems that summer is finally with us. How I love the long hot summer days; sitting in the park surrounded by friends, all smelling of suntan lotion. How wonderful….

But the summer heat also brings hot, sweaty, sleepless nights. Particularly when you live in a flat in central London, like me. Even in the depths of winter my flat is balmy, so during the warmer months it can be unbearable. And have you tried sleeping in Shoreditch with the windows open? The continuous stream of traffic, copious sirens and late-night drinkers hardly make for a restful night.

Thankfully the Sleep Geek has some wise words to help me – and you – survive those sticky summer nights: just click here for his practical hints and tips.

The excellent advice includes two product recommendations, one of them for the Chillow; a product the Sleep Geek describes as “a brilliant budget product” for combating overheating in bed. For those of you who haven’t seen or heard of the Chillow, I’ve included a couple of images. Essentially, it’s a blue pad, the same size as an average pillow, that sits on top of your existing pillow and is designed to keep you as cool as a cucumber all through the night. It is also praised highly by my mum and my other half’s mum – two ladies with high standards and impeccable taste. With all these commendations, I’ve just got to try it.

So, on this sticky evening, and for the next few nights, I will be testing the Chillow. Look out for my review next week, sleep-lovers.

Reading Grazia: good; reading sleep studies: bad

Credit: Foxtongue Flickr/Creative Commons

What am I talking about? My latest bedtime routine discovery.

I love reading, always have. Particularly in the evening though, curled up and comfy in my pjs in bed, and – in an ideal world – with the soothing pitter patter of rain drops against the glass of my bedroom window. Reading is very relaxing for me and, now that I come to think about it, reading a chapter or two (or, sometimes, just a page or two) at bedtime often sends my eyelids into free fall.

What I’ve come to understand over the past few weeks, though, is that not all reading material is good for bedtime perusal. Perfect bedtime reading for me is a light novel or magazine (Grazia being a particular favourite on a Tuesday night) – essentially, something that helps me to unwind and my mind to switch off. The magazine supplements from the weekend newspapers are great, as they’re easy to dip in and out of – when I go to bed feeling alert, the longer features are just the right length before I start nodding off, whilst the tit-bits of information and gossip scattered throughout are ideal when I need just a few minutes of quiet time before sleep.

At bedtime, I can’t read anything that engages my mind too much.  Cookery magazines and books are chief sleep-stealers. I find them too stimulating. Instead of sleeping, I find myself planning menus. Books about sleep and sleep problems are just as bad, as I become too engaged in the information they impart. I’m still thinking about the various methods of solving sleep issues when I should be sleeping!

So, for other bedtime readers out there, the next time you’re having trouble dropping off to sleep, consider if your reading matter may be to blame.

“The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to.”

“The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to” said F. Scott Fitzgerald….

Last night was a real struggle. I just couldn’t fall asleep. I felt too hot. I kicked off the covers. Then I felt too cold. I couldn’t find a comfortable position. I tossed and I turned. I stared, angrily, at my other half who was soundly snoozing at my side. Then I wondered how long I’d been tossing and turning for. I checked the time on my BlackBerry: 2:41am. I’d been in bed, awake, for over four hours. I calculated that – oh God! – I only had about four hours sleeping time remaining. Four hours! And that was only if I fell asleep right now. That wasn’t going to happen. And I had so much to do – I didn’t have time for this…

Even if you’re generally a good sleeper, I’m sure you’ve experienced a bad night like this at some point for no apparent reason. So, what can we do if sleep just won’t come?

I quizzed the Sleep Geek on this very point.  Fortunately he has some simple suggestions for us to try the next time sleep is a struggle. Here are the Sleep Geek’s top 10 tips for dealing with those occasional, but frustrating, sleepless nights:

  1. Avoid clock-watching by removing your alarm clock and your mobile phone or BlackBerry from sight. Clock-watching during the night will only remind you that you’re awake and add to your anxiety.
  2. As difficult as it may be, try not to worry about not sleeping. The more you worry, the harder you will find it to fall asleep.
  3. A slight drop in body temperature is a trigger for sleep – try opening your bedroom window slightly or hanging your feet out of bed.
  4. Breathe slowly and deeply.
  5. Get up and do something you find relaxing, such as reading, listening to music or drinking a hot milky drink.
  6. Take a warm bath.
  7. Get out of bed and do something mundane, such as tidying your living room. If this doesn’t make you feel sleepy, at least you’ll have a lovely, tidy room!
  8. Calm a racing mind by writing down your thoughts and worries, whether it’s a family problem or what you’re going to cook for a dinner party you’re hosting.
  9. Try eating a light snack.
  10. If the above tips don’t work, but you find that watching TV in bed, for example, usually helps you drift off to sleep, then that’s fine. The key is to find the best solution for you.

If you regularly don’t get the sleep you need, why not begin your quest for quality sleep today? Begin by experimenting to work out your perfect sleep routine, and please let me know how you get on.  Anyone suffering from chronic sleeplessness (anything beyond a week) should make a visit to their GP.

Feeling hot, hot, hot…

It’s hot in Dubai, really hot! Today I’ve been sunbathing (well, sitting in the shade wearing factor 50 sun block – does that count?) in 40°C! I don’t think I’ve ever felt so hot and sticky; like Britain’s Eurovision chances i’m fading fast…. But before you dismiss me as a typical Brit, always complaining about the weather, and stop reading this post, hear me out….

I’m not here to write about the weather; I’m here to write about sleep, and how to get more top quality sleep. But you can’t deny that the outside temperature and sleep quality are often linked. I only have think back to about a week ago, when temperatures in the UK soared and I spent three sweaty nights struggling to sleep.

Despite the enduring heat and humidity, I have slept wonderfully here, thanks to the very clever man who invented air conditioning – Willis Haviland Carrier just in case you were wondering. Air conditioning is an extravagance though, especially if you live in a country with a varied climate like me, where the hot, humid days are greatly outnumbered by cool rainy ones. But, oh how I wish I could justify the expense on those hot, sweaty, sleepless nights.

The Sleep Geek has promised to share his top tips for sleeping on sticky summer nights very soon. In the meantime, here’s a little tip that usually works for me when I’m feeling too hot and struggling to sleep:

Generously apply a cooling moisturiser, such as an aftersun lotion, to cool and soothe hot skin. For an extra cooling experience, try keeping your favourite moisturiser in the fridge.

Using lavender for better quality sleep

It seems that the belief that the scent of lavender enhances sleep is more than just an old wives tale. I’ve been doing my research and just look what I’ve found:

  • A study at the University of Southampton in 2005 found that sleeping in a lavender-scented room improved sleep quality by 20%.
  • A study at Wesleyan University in 2004 found that the scent of lavender essential oil increased slow-wave, or deep sleep, resulting in the participants feeling more energetic and alert the next morning.

For almost two weeks I have been conducting my own mini experiment by sleeping in a lavender-scented room. I began my test using the power of Google – a quick search suggests that it’s best to dilute lavender essential oil, as using it in its pure form can cause skin irritation (it’s probably best to do a spot test before using it in any form though). Then, after emptying my bathroom cabinet of all its lotions and potions, I found a small empty plastic bottle with an atomiser lurking at the back (I knew it would come in handy for something one day!), filled it with water and a few – about 15 – drops of lavender essential oil. Ta da, my very own lavender room spray!

For the last 13 days I have been generously spritzing my bedroom with my homemade air freshener before bedtime. I realised by night two that that, actually, I really don’t like the smell of lavender. My other half, meanwhile, does like the scent and yesterday commented that he had started to associate the smell with going to sleep. Oh dear.

Whilst neither of us noticeably experienced improved sleep quality, our test highlighted that scent can be used as part of a sleep routine as a cue to promote sleep. Next, we will be testing some of the lesser-known essential oils for promoting sleep – such as chamomile or jasmine – until we find a scent that works for us both!

If you like the scent of lavender, here are some alternative ways of using it during your bedtime routine (don’t tell my other half though!):

  • Place lavender-scented sleep stones and/or lavender flower heads in your bedroom for a longer lasting aroma of lavender.
  • Encourage someone lovely to give you a bedtime massage using diluted lavender essential oil.
  • Use a lavender-scented body soak in a warm bath for a relaxing nighttime treat.
  • Inhale the aroma of lavender oil – dab the oil on a cotton wool ball or tissue and breathe in the scent.
  • Use a lavender-scented moisturiser or body lotion.

How to cope with early starts

The Sleep Geek: A man in glasses who knows a lot about sleep

Rising earlier than usual often means getting less sleep than usual. In addition, the thought of getting up early can cause stress and worry, making falling asleep more of a challenge. The result of an early start is typically fatigue, lethargy and increased appetite. Simply put, you feel rubbish and want to eat rubbish.

Thankfully there are some simple ways to make an early start a little easier. The Sleep Geek has helpfully shared his tips for handling early mornings in his new article “Early Starts and Little Naps” – read it by clicking here.

Could a lack of sleep be making you fat?

I spent the weekend in the lovely English countryside with my other half. It was wonderful….until 5am yesterday morning when we had to drag ourselves out of bed – after around five and half hour’s sleep – and drive back to London for my other half’s 7am start time.

After the initial shock of getting up in the middle of the night (it felt like that, anyway) I felt exhilarated by my early start. The sun was coming up as we drove and by 6:30am I was in London and ready to start my day, having already listened to the morning news on the way in.  I’ll admit it, I felt rather smug.

Things started to go downhill at about 9am. I suddenly felt tired and lacking in energy. Despite my usual daddy-bear-sized bowl of porridge only a few hours earlier, I also felt very hungry. I wanted thick white toast smeared with butter and jam. And Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. And chocolate biscuits.

I managed to get through the day, succumbing to my rumbling stomach only once or twice more than usual. It took sheer determination to stop myself from finishing off the box of Maltesers in the cupboard though.

I mentioned my increased appetite to my other half, after polishing off three large chicken fajitas for tea last night. He, too, had felt especially hungry that day – although he is constantly hungry so I’m not sure how remarkable that is!

I reflected on our conversation later that evening. Was our greediness that day a consequence of our lack of sleep the night before?

First thing this morning – after an early night and a glorious eight hours of sleep – I did a spot of research. And there was my answer in black and white: according to a number of scientific studies, a lack of sleep increases feelings of hunger, which can lead to eating more and gaining weight.

I found three 2004 studies[1], that had all found a link between sleep and the hormones that are involved in regulating appetite – ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry and leptin, which suppresses appetite. These studies found that people who slept for shorter durations had increased ghrelin levels and reduced leptin levels. Wow!

One of these 2004 studies, reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also found that sleep deprivation affects our food choices. In that study, when sleep was restricted, the participants craved calorie-dense foods with high carbohydrate content.

In a recent study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March 2010, the participants (healthy, normal-weight young men) took in 22% more calories, on average, when they’d slept for four hours the night before, compared to when they slept for eight hours. The average calorie increase after a night of restricted sleep was about 560, equivalent to a Dominos cheese and tomato pizza!

This is fascinating! The results match my own experience completely – increased appetite, craving carbs and eating more calories than normal. What an eye-opener.

So, the next time you’re feeling extra peckish, consider whether your sleeping habits could be to blame. And, if you’re trying to lose weight, getting some more quality sleep could be the key to shifting those pounds!


[1] Karine Spiegel, PhD; Esra Tasali, MD; Plamen Penev, MD, PhD; and Eve Van Cauter, PhD (7 December 2004)“Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men Is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite”, Annals of Internal Medicine, vol 141: pp 846-850

Does the lack of sleep make you fat? (7 December 2004) Bristol University Press Release

Shahrad Taheri, Ling Lin, Diane Austin, Terry Young, Emmanual Mignot (December 2004) Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index Public Library of Science Medicine

Product review: The Glo to Sleep eye mask

Welcome to my first product review! Every few weeks I will be testing and reviewing a sleep-related product. This time it is the Glo to Sleep eye mask.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has climbed into bed at the end of a hectic day with the expectation of falling asleep immediately, only to find myself kept awake in the wee hours by my busy brain. Perhaps, like me, you’ve wished you could turn off your mind as easily as switching off your bedside lamp. Is it possible that an eye mask could do just that?

The Glo to Sleep eye mask is designed to induce sleep by slowing down brain wave activity; effectively switching off your buzzing mind. It looks similar to a standard eye mask, except that it has four glowing points inside each “eye” of the mask. The idea is that, by focusing on the glowing points, your active brain waves slow down, creating a relaxed, meditative state that leads to sleep.

To activate the points inside the Glo to Sleep eye mask, the user is told to simply hold the inside of the mask towards a light source, such as a light bulb, for 30 – 90 seconds. Then you slip the eye mask on, gaze up at the glowing points and breathe deeply. And – hey presto – you’re asleep!

It all sounds wonderfully simple, right? For the last week, I have been trialling the Glo to Sleep and, I have to admit, I was a little skeptical about this product at first. The concept sounded a little too good to be true. But, in this instance, I was very happy to be proved wrong.

The first thing to say is that the Glo to Sleep is very comfortable and easy to wear. The soft foam eye mask fitted securely on my face, blocking out all light (except for the glowing points inside the mask). Each night, focusing on the glowing points was simple and easy for around a minute, and then – to my surprise – my eyelids would begin to feel very heavy. A few more seconds later, I would feel so sleepy I could hardly keep my eyes open. If I felt my mind wondering, I gazed back up at the glowing points and, after only a few moments, my mind would clear and I would feel relaxed and drowsy again. Very impressive indeed!

The Glo to Sleep could be used as part of a bedtime routine – and it’s a serious contender for mine – but for now I’ll just keep it by my bedside, as an emergency solution for sleep-struggles, until I’ve considered all the options. I’ll certainly be packing it in my hand-luggage for a refreshing snooze on my next flight though.

The Glo to Sleep eye mask is available from We Love Sleep.

New study links lack of sleep to an early death!

If I didn’t have enough reasons already to improve my sleeping habits, here’s another one to add to the list. New research, reported in the journal Sleep, found that people who regularly slept for less than six hours a night were 12% more likely to die prematurely over a 25 year period than those who slept for the recommended six to eight hours each night.

To read the BBC News’ article about the findings, click here.