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Could Obesity Rob You of a Good Night’s Sleep?

By Bariatric Department at Lafayette General Medical Center
June 6, 2019

Sleep disturbances often contribute to obesity, and obesity contributes to sleep disturbances. It’s a vicious cycle leading to any number of secondary issues that make maintaining a healthy weight and getting a good night’s rest even more difficult.

How Obesity Affects The Ability To Sleep

When body mass indexes cross into the overweight and obese levels—25 to 29.9 and 30 or more, respectively—physiological changes make sleep more elusive:

  • Added weight to the body can physically alter airway structures or function. Constricted air flow leaves the body struggling for oxygen and desperate to rid itself of carbon dioxide.
  • Added fat tissue alters the level of adipokines in the body. These signaling proteins either constrict or open air passages and control air pressure.

Again, the relationship is a cyclical one. These changes decrease the body’s ability to breathe while at rest and, in turn, alter metabolism and systemic functions in the body.

Obesity, Sleep Disturbances and Secondary Issues

Over time, the changes associated with lack of sleep and excess fat can extend to other body systems and lead to secondary health issues:

  • Cardiovascular Disease. The heart may be unable to increase its rate to respond to an increased level of activity, and it may take a long time to recover from exertion. In addition, blood pressure often rises to compensate, increasing the risk of serious complications. Good cholesterol—HDL—levels may fall while bad cholesterol—LDL—climbs, leading to clogged arteries and other circulatory problems.
  • Insulin Resistance and Diabetes. Insulin resistance is closely associated with sleep deprivation, regardless of body weight. The body is unable to absorb glucose from the blood and convert it to energy. Over time, insulin resistance can develop into diabetes, leading to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, circulatory problems, inflammation, stroke, blindness and kidney failure.
  • Emotional or Mental Distress. Emotional distress is a common factor for overweight individuals suffering from insomnia. Mood swings are also a telling symptom of insulin resistance and diabetes.
  • Cancer. Researchers are exploring links between certain types of cancer and chronic, low levels of inflammation, like those associated with acid reflux and Barrett’s esophagus. Obesity may increase the risk for these conditions and, in turn, raise the chances for tissue damage and cancer development. In addition, fat tissue produces high levels of estrogen and is also associated with growth factors and growth regulators that control cell development.

Losing Weight and Gaining Sleep

Even a modest weight loss of 10 percent body weight can yield substantial improvements in sleep. When combined, the two can improve metabolism, lower inflammation and retune the immune system. Just a small loss can result in a significant improvement in quality of life and turn a vicious cycle of sleepless weight gain into a healthful lifestyle—one that includes a regular good night’s sleep.