You may not snooze and lose, but sleep can help you manage your weight.
Credit: Illustration: Bee Johnson

It sounds like a kooky claim you see floating around the Internet: Lose weight while you sleep. It doesn't work quite that way, but the inverse is true: Poor sleep really can make you pack on the pounds. "There's a large body of literature linking not getting enough sleep to having higher weight or higher body mass index," says researcher Kelly Glazer Baron, PhD, assistant professor of Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical College.

When you cheat sleep, your body misses an opportunity to do important work. "Certain functions work better when we're not interfacing with the world," says Michael Grandner, Program at the University of Arizona. Those include regulating your metabolism, which is key to managing weight. "When things get out of balance, your food intake changes, your metabolism changes, how your body uses energy changes, and that can cause downstream effects on weight," says Grandner. Poor sleep messes with insulin production and hunger hormones, making you more likely to crave junk food. It also hinders decision-making, so you're more likely to give in to that potato chip craving.

How much is enough? Seven to eight hours of sleep a night is the sweet spot for most of us, though if you wake up refreshed and feel alert throughout the day, chances are you're doing OK. However, research shows people often overestimate how much sleep they get by 30 to 60 minutes a night, and even those who think they're getting enough rest may simply be used to feeling sleep deprived.

And it's not just quantity, but quality. Sleep apnea—a common condition in which you pause when breathing while you snooze, preventing deep, restorative sleep—is a known risk factor for obesity and diabetes.

If the idea of sleeping an extra hour a night seems daunting, start small. Even a half hour of extra sleep can boost your health, says Baron. Though it can sometimes feel like there's just no room for more slumber in your busy schedule, it's clear that a little extra sleep helps your health and your waistline.

7 Ways to Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

These healthy habits will help you continue to sleep soundly, and they may remedy occasional bouts of sleeplessness.

Sleeping in on weekends can leave you feeling jet-lagged as you try to readjust to your weekday routine. Aim for a consistent routine each day of the week.

"Exercise is probably the number one thing you can do for your sleep," says Baron. Any type of workout helps, at any time of day. And although a small 2011 study suggested that early-morning workouts were best to enhance sleep quality, consistency is more important. Experts say claims that exercising vigorously too close to bedtime make it harder to sleep are mostly overblown, so choose a time you can stick to.

Skip coffee and caffeinated soda after lunch; caffeine lingers in your system for hours. Also avoid "hidden" sources of caffeine, like chocolate, later in the day.

Alcohol may make you nod off more quickly, but it interferes with deep, restorative slumber.

Exposure to even a little light on the blue-green end of the spectrum, which mimics daylight, stimulates the brain, says Grandner. That includes streetlights, the TV, even opening the fridge to grab a drink of water or flipping on the bathroom light. Dim lights an hour or two before bed to prime your brain for sleep. Use the "night shift" feature on your phone or tablet to set the screen to a warmer, less-stimulating spectrum in the evening.

Common drugs, from beta-blockers to allergy medicine, can interfere with sleep. If you're having trouble sleeping, ask your doctor about alternative medications, changing the time of day when you take them, or adjusting the dosage.

"What turns short-term insomnia chronic seems to be people spending too much time in bed trying to chase after lost sleep, which just programs their brain to be awake in bed," says Grandner. If you don't drop off within 30 minutes, get out of bed.