Obesity and Sleep


Written by Afy Okoye

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Breus

Our Editorial Process

Table of Contents

Sleep and higher body weight are thought to have a bidirectional relationship, meaning that sleep problems can contribute to weight gain, and having obesity can detract from sleep quality. 

As obesity becomes increasingly common in the U.S. and worldwide, understanding how sleep and weight affect one another can help you take steps toward improving your sleep health.

Can Sleep Deprivation Cause Weight Gain?

Lack of sleep can lead to hormonal and behavioral changes that can contribute to weight gain. However, body weight is related to many factors beyond sleep, including genetics, other health conditions, medications, and a person’s environment.

Sleep deprivation may increase the likelihood of weight gain in a few different ways.

  • Increased hunger hormones: Lack of sleep can disrupt the balance of hormones that control a person’s appetite and feelings of fullness. Sleep-deprived people may find themselves craving high-calorie foods and feeling less full after eating than they normally would. These changes could lead to overeating and weight gain in some people.
  • Increased stress hormones: Sleep deprivation affects not only hunger but also stress. Excess stress hormones may be produced in response to a lack of sleep, which may lead the body to retain more fat.
  • Reduced physical activity: When a person feels tired due to lack of sleep, they’re more likely to be sedentary than to be physically active. Expending less energy can play a role in weight gain.
  • More time awake: By definition, getting less sleep means spending more time awake. This can create more opportunities to eat, which may cause overeating and weight gain.

Sleep deprivation also affects body weight in children, from newborns to adolescents. Sleep plays an important role in a child’s development, and a lack of sleep can negatively impact brain functions relating to activity and appetite. Children need more sleep than adults, so caregivers should work to help children get the recommended hours of sleep for their age.

Can Obesity Cause Poor Sleep?

Excess weight and obesity are often associated with various conditions that can disrupt sleep, including: 

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: Having obesity increases a person’s risk of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition that involves reduced sleep quality. People with OSA experience frequent pauses in breathing during sleep due to a blockage in their upper airway. 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Obesity can increase the likelihood of developing GERD. People with GERD experience heartburn, regurgitation, and discomfort, which can all impact sleep. 
  • Discomfort: Excess weight can strain joints and muscles, causing pain and discomfort when lying down. This discomfort can make it challenging to find a comfortable sleep position and stay asleep throughout the night.

How to Get Better Sleep If You Are Overweight

If you’re struggling to get a good night’s rest, it can be helpful to take steps to improve your sleep hygiene. Several sleep hygiene enhancements may be particularly helpful to people with overweight or obesity.

  • Choose the right mattress: People with a higher body weight often feel more comfortable on a firmer mattress that promotes spinal alignment by preventing the body from sinking too deeply into the bed. You may sleep better with a mattress that suits your body type, sleeping position, and personal comfort preferences.
  • Exercise during the day: Exercising for half an hour or more every day can help you sleep better at night. However, it’s best to stop vigorous exercise at least two hours before going to bed.
  • Avoid large meals at night: Eating heavy meals too close to bedtime can interfere with sleep. Instead, opt for a light snack if needed.
  • Create a relaxing evening routine: Do calming activities to ease stress and prepare yourself for sleep each night. For example, try listening to calming music or reading a book before bed.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness and meditation are practices that encourage you to be aware of the present moment. This awareness may be beneficial to both sleep quality and healthy eating.

About The Author

Afy Okoye

Staff Writer, Sleep Health

Afy is a writer and creative strategist in San Francisco with a master’s degree in international health policy from the London School of Economics. She has written for VeryWell Health, BlackDoctor.org, and Paste magazine and edited peer-reviewed journal manuscripts for Elsevier. Afy says her work with The Sleep Doctor is anything but “sleepy.” She enjoys the opportunity to learn new information and share knowledge that gives people the power to make better choices. Afy also likes to read non-fiction, do creative writing, and travel solo.

  • POSITION: Side Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Hot Sleeper

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