Coach | Nutritionist
Coach | Nutritionist
How poor sleep is blocking your fat-loss goals
Sleep deprivation is not good for you. Neither is stress.
And that’s about it.
Ok, ok, I’ll go on. However, I have stated the obvious. You have no doubt heard this before, but this doesn’t mean that you are fully aware of how much it does, and in what way.
You see, we live in a glorious time. A time where it is deemed cool to sleep less and #Hustle #Grind #NoPainNoGain and all these other false bullshit motivational cliches. And don’t get me wrong, there are people who can function really well on 4-5 hours sleep a night, but these are outliers and will no doubt not be living this way all the time. They just present themselves so. At the same time, this does not mean we all can. We just think that we must. Whether it’s to succeed in our careers or just the same old “fear of missing out”.
Let’s not forget, on top of our working day we have out family lives, friends, social events, hobbies, scratching our crotches, and of course, training and dieting.
These all play a part in chipping away at your physical and mental reserves on a daily basis the second you wake. The issue becomes that we blatantly ignore the red flags and push on. Some of us claim that we function better this way in fear that if we stop, then we inevitably fail at whatever we are doing.
Of course, we all have different methods of dealing with stress. Some of us enjoy a cold beer. Some like to get lost in a book. Some of us just fire up the ole’ Netflix and binge on the latest trend (which is secretly never-ending reruns of Friends). And of course, some of us head to the gym to “crush” some weights.
I like a mixture of all –and more– depending on the day of the week, and whether I can simply be bothered shifting my ass in front of a barbell or flat out starfishing myself onto my Hugh Hefner type livingroom rug.
This is all helpful on the surface, but it is not tackling the overall issue. By not doing this we are constantly overlooking the obvious culprit.
So why is this such a major issue when it comes to training, dieting, and overall heath?
I’m mostly going to tackle the most common issue. Fat loss goals.
By sacrificing sleep to get more done when we often hit a fat loss plateau. Our instinctive first actions that we take are…
- Drastically cut calories
- Insanely cut carbs
- Add a training day (or two)
- Add too many intense cardio sessions (think 45-minute High-Intensity Interval Training….again)
Oh, and of course, stress ourselves even more.
The classic stress feedback loop that silently killing your fat loss progress.
There are a number of simple actions you can take to resolve this, but first, let us look at the potential drawbacks to burning the candle at both ends.
LACK OF WILLPOWER / SELF-CONTROL
We are all well aware of willpower and self-control and commonly blame them when we make a poor dieting decision. We get a build up of immense frustration but we play it off as a joke while we say it with a wry smile. Covering up the fact that we are pissed off at the decision we just made. Whether it was pressing down that extra doughnut that you bought to enjoy knowing too well that you had zero intention of eating just one. Or, because you know that you should have gone to bed at your standard time but somehow ended up staying up an extra hour scrolling through heavily filtered Instagram photos of #fitspiration profiles and now couldn’t get up to the gym the next morning, meaning that you will now be starting the day off feeling guilty. On top of already feeling frustrated and stressed.
This filters throughout the day. Heightening the chances of making poor decisions which are now almost a guarantee. Draining away something which is just as important as your physical energy.
I’m not shitting you, this is a real thing. It just gets dismissed and pounded with stimulants such as bucketloads of coffee and any useless expensive training supplements that you just happened to have been suckered into buying that month.
You see, decision fatigue is the brain’s equivalent of physical fatigue. It is working constantly while you are sleeping and awake. However, when you are awake it is you who is now behind the steering wheel. When we are in control, our personalities will dictate how much we abuse our brain’s ability. Especially when it comes to an age old classic of multitasking.
This is where the kicker comes in. Like our bodies, we only have a limited source of energy –or willpower– each day. If we get up early to do a bunch of tasks before work and then head in to start trawling through the dreaded email inbox while being loaded with demands before we’ve had a chance to mold our ass’s into our chairs then we are already taking off huge chunks of willpower. And our ability to make focused decisions.
Fast forward to the mid-afternoon when the day has really done a number on us and we are trying our best to stick to our diet. Which we are. But it is mainly because we have kept ourselves occupied with the routine of work and the fact we are now looking forward to getting home for the day
But first, we have the gym to get our workout in. Which is now sounding like a challenge in itself. Willpower is taking more hits than Johnny Depp’s movie credibility after yet another Pirates of the Carribean outing. 5 pm rolls around and we somehow make to the gym. We enjoy it as we always do. Now to head home, kick our feet up and chill out for the evening. But first, dinner has to be prepared.
Willpower is rock bottom now. Decision fatigue is long gone. But, we have one more major decision to make. What food choices to prepare for our dinner that is going to fit with our diet. Do we take the time to prepare something satiating, tasty, and will leave us feeling better about ourselves. Or, do we go for the quick buck? Grab the first thing to devour and end up feeling guilty the rest of the evening. Finishing the day feeling like shit.
This is where preparation is key. If we know what our daily routine looks like and how it makes us feel throughout, then placing small markers across our daily environment will help make these decisions easier. Creating a path to dietary success.
This could be by preparing food and freezing the week or night before. Packing our gym bag and taking it to work with us as a reminder to carry it out to after. Setting timers to take breaks from your work to allow time for our stress levels to drop while we grab a drink, walk, and most likely a classic skive.
Basically, whatever works for you.
ARE YOU AWAKE LONGER? THEN YOU WILL BE EATING MORE. SERIOUSLY
I sort of just answered my own question there did I? I need to stop revealing myself too quickly. This is why I keep getting into more situations than a Charlie Sheen and Miley Cyrus hybrid. Minus the illegal ramifications, drink, and drugs.
Of course, there is more to this. People who tend to have broken sleep patterns due to being shift workers, new parents, or struggle with insomnia can find it difficult for a number of reasons (some which I’ll explain later). Couple this with the ole’ decision fatigue, someone can all of a sudden find themselves with more time in their day. And in this case, they will more often than not consume all their meals and snacks long before they head to bed –assuming that they actually do. This then leaves a lot of time to fill, and it tends to be filled with trips to the kitchen to do some subconscious ninja style snacking, and we both know that nobody in the right mind has ever snacked on salads.
Which then means…
High fat and carb choices ahoy.
This is really where the first double-edged sword comes into it. With this, it intensifies our brain’s salience network. Think of this as our pleasure signaling system. And like I mentioned above, when we seek pleasure we definitely do not stand at a kitchen counter throwing together a salad with a multitude of filthy thoughts going through our heads.
I have never once thought about eating a salad from Scarlett Johansson’s semi-naked body. But fajitas and ice cream with a side of craft beer? Where the hell do I sign up?
Alrighty then, let’s steer this awkward ship back now Roy.
Due to the heightening of this pleasure signaling we crave only one type of foods.
Highly palatable foods.
These are foods that tend to be more calorie dense (high calorie), nutrient poor (low nutrition) foods such as fat and carbs, though it’s mainly fat. Increasing malnutritional choices. Ramping up the ole’ calories in quick succession. The next issue is that these foods are often non-satiating. Meaning that we just keep eating away and grabbing more choices in an uncontrollable manner. Not even paying attention most of the time in a zombie-like state, until its too late.
This then leads onto what’s else is going on under the hood.
Yes, I said the H word.
I’ve mentioned above about the effects of stress which causes cortisol to max out for long periods, so now to get into the dirt of this.
Note: High cortisol is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be very beneficial for fat loss, muscle, and strength goals. It is when it cortisol is too high for long periods of time that this then becomes an issue. Think of drinking your car at 100mph for hours on end. Something negative is eventually going to happen.
We are all aware of stress and the importance of controlling it for our health. Well, it just so happens that it kinda plays an important factor in weight management too. Especially when paired up with sleep deprivation.
If we are spending our days fighting off poor choices due to a poor sleep cycle coupled with decision fatigue then the natural result of this is, of course, heightened stress. The thing is, we are aware of it but more often than not do we do nothing about it. It is the old adage of humans preferring to live in a state of suffering than resolution and comfort (we are a weird race that’s for sure).
When we eat we stress. When we train we stress. When we go to bed late we stress. Then, when we wake up, our stress levels are extremely high. It becomes a cycle of a never ending fuck-ton of stress. Maxing out cortisol. Aiding in the storage of body fat.
Not only that, there are the other hormonal imbalances that tag along for the ride.
First up, leptin. The hunger suppressant hormone. This dude helps tell us when we have had enough to eat and are now satisfied, definitely something that we want on our side. But there are two main factors that mess it all up. One being dieting for extreme levels of fat loss (think stage competitions, photoshoots, or anything that requires a nice defined set of six-pack abs). The other is, you guessed it, sleep deprivation. With this, leptin has shown in studies to have dropped by around 19% and possibly more when it comes to chronic sleep deprivation. Double this up with dieting for fat loss and it’s going to take more abuse than Donald Trumps Twitter account.
Next up, Ghrelin. If leptin if the hormone that signals hunger suppressant, then take a wild guess at what Ghrelin does? Yup, you guessed it. This promotes the feeling of hunger. All of those times that you think that you are hungry is simply ghrelin knocking away at your brain. Teasing you to just take a bite of that icing dripping custard filled mouth porn style doughnut. Oh, and you know what happens when you are sleep deprived. Again, you guessed it, it skyrockets. Causing hunger –or the feeling of hunger– all the time.
At this point, you will be feeling like Luke Skywalker when he clocks on that Princess Leah is his sister, and he gave her the ole’ tongue punching to the mouth.
Leptin is through the ground. Ghrelin is through the roof. Cortisol is all over the place. It’s a no-win situation. All because your sleep is a mess.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO TO TACKLE THIS?
Prioritise Sleep – Obvious, right? The thing is, we don’t. We tell ourselves that we will make up for it in the weekend but then make plans which sometimes results in being awake even later. Rolling back around to feeling even more shitty on Monday. The old Monday hatred.
Can you go to bed earlier? Even 30 minutes earlier each night. This will help so much more than you think. If you struggle to fall asleep at night then try taking a hot shower or use some Epsom salts and take a bath. Both of these will help relax you and prime you for sleep.
Lower Training Intensity – I know I get it. We want to keep crushing it in the gym, but sometimes it is too much. Causing more physical stress. Preventing the body’s ability to lose fat.
Either swap out a workout for some conditioning work, such as mobility stretches, foam rolling, or some lower intense cardio such as a walk or swim. It doesn’t need to be forever. Just until things start to improve.
I’ve broken clients fat loss plateaus a number of times in the past by reviewing the amount of stress at work, in the gym, all the while trying to bottle-neck their free time to be busy. So by reducing –or changing– their training slightly then all of a sudden the scales started to budge. Voila.
Increase Calories – Sounds counterproductive. But if a part of your increased stress levels is due to dieting, then creating a calorie increase to around just below maintenance for a week or two can help alleviate this. Allowing you to then work on other areas with ease.
If you try to do too much at once then you can stress even more, or flat out fail. So make one change. Assess it, and follow it with another if need be.
Remove Electronics – If you have any electronic devices in the bedroom such as a bright LED alarm, TV, lightsaber, or even your mobile phone. This can disrupt sleep due to the bright lights –or that absolute idiot who text or calls you late at night knowing full well that people actually sleep.
Aim to stop using anything with a bright screen such as a phone, tablet, or laptop around 30 minutes before bed to allow the brain to fall into a relaxed state. The blue screen effects trigger the mind into working extra hard. Trying to process information at an accelerated state and preventing melatonin from increasing, thus taking longer to fall into a deep sleep.
Lower Temperature – If it’s too hot in the bedroom (not like that you filthy minded…) then it will become too uncomfortable to relax and sleep.
Drop the temperature and lose some clothes. Allow for your body’s natural body heat to comfort you rather than the artificial heat caused by your home’s heating system and layers of clothes.
Go For A Walk – Or find any other way to get some headspace. We will fill our days with almost anything we can latch on to, again, causing more stress and fatigue.
Take time to go for a walk. Listen to music. Read a book. Have a conversation. Anything that will occupy and relax your mind more. You do not need to be physically and mentally active all the time.
Create A Routine – Creating a consistent sleep cycle is important, much like having a diet, work, workout, and… any other routine. If your body gets into a sleep routine then it will be more compliant in its overall function (focus, hunger, performance).
With that, you can aim to create a bedtime routine. Winding down in a consistent and specific way. A fw things I like to do is start to dim down the light around my place. This includes on any electronics too. On my iPhone, I have the nightshift mode set to begin at 7pm while on my laptop I use an all called f.lux which removed the bluescreen effect. Removing any strain and allowing your brain to relax more within the times that you set it to be active.
Calm Down and Switch Off – It can be very hard to switch off the brain. It’s a bit of a scumbag that way, and we don’t help it in any way. Two things I find works really well to help settle it down are first, having a cut-off point for stimulant such as caffeine. I head to bed at around 10pm so 4pm is my cut-off point since caffeine stays in your system for up to 6-7 hours.
Second, I try to take some time to do some journaling. Just dump my thoughts onto paper. this is great for any stresses that you may have in any way. You may think journaling is not for you but you would be surprised at how effective just clearing your head and organising your thoughts can be. Especially for removing stress. If this is not your jam, then try doing some light reading for 10-15 minutes before you head to sleep. Again, this is great for settling your thoughts and allowing your brain to switch gears and read itself for sleep. The annoying thing is that it’s always when you are really into a book and you can only get one page in at a time before dosing off.
Lack of willpower/Self-control – Lack of sleep lowers our willpower and out minds ability to make a sensible decision. Increasing the chances of snacking and binging.
Decision fatigue – Couples with the above, be aware that our brains energy depletes much like our bodies. Increasing the chances of skipping the gym or eating more.
Sleep less. Eat more – When we are awake more we will start to find things to do to occupy our mind. Due to sleep deprivation, we tend to head to the kitchen or store.
Highly palatable foods – Sleep deprivation increased our malnutritional choices. Meaning that we will automatically reach for high fat and/or carbohydrate foods.
Leptin decreases – The hunger suppressant hormone decreases. Making it more difficult to be satisfied when finished.
Ghrelin increases – The hunger-signaling hormone increases. Meaning that you will begin to feel hungry more of the time despite not actually being hungry.
P.S. If you are still awake after all that and fancy some super special private brain nuggets then feel free to enter your info below and you’ll get it straight to your inbox. If not, that’s cool too.