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Sleep Yourself Thin

Not to fly in the face of your inherited Protestant work ethic, but skipping sleep is taking years off of lives and making them miserable.

by Ben Richmond
Jul 1 2013, 8:10pm
Gratuitous Internet cat image, via

Two weeks after the New York Times reminded you that not getting enough sleep is ruining your internal organs, your immune system, and your ability to drive, in addition to probably giving you diabetes, breast cancer and depression, researchers have linked a chronic lack of sleep to obesity too.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that adults with late bedtimes and chronic sleep restriction may be more susceptible to weight gain—and ultimately obesity—than their early-to-bed contemporaries.

The problem isn’t just that you’re awake and therefore able to consume more calories, but late at night you’re also more likely to eat food with more fat. Anecdotally, this makes perfect sense; I’ve been on many late-night pizza runs, and have never been on a late-night salad run.

It’s these sort of lifestyle habits, along with consequences like being too tired to go to the gym, that you might imagine lead to weight gain but this study tried to filter those questions out. A disregard for sleep habits could be a harbinger of a general disregard for health, which would in turn lead to an unhealthy weight, but the lab environment allowed the researchers to zoom in on the correlation between weight gain and sleep, with surprising results. 

“Although previous epidemiological studies have suggested an association between short sleep duration and weight gain/obesity, we were surprised to observe significant weight gain during an in-laboratory study,” said Andrea Spaeth, lead author of the study, which was published in the July issue of the journal SLEEP.

The subjects, 225 adults, stayed in a lab for up to 18 days, and were provided with meals as well as access to a lab kitchen whenever they wanted. Sleep-restricted subjects could watch TV, play video games or read—anything but exercise or go to bed before 4 am; just like your freshman year of college. And just like that freshman year, the subjects consumed "substantially more" food and drink, which lead to weight gain.

The impact—demonstrable even over the short duration or the study—didn’t hit all subjects evenly. Males gained more weight than females, and African Americans gained more weight than Caucasians. "African Americans, who are at greater risk for obesity and more likely to be habitual short sleepers, may be more susceptible to weight gain in response to sleep restriction," said Spaeth. "Future studies should focus on identifying the behavioral and physiological mechanisms underlying this increased vulnerability.”

America is not only disease-ridden with obesity, we’re also sleep deprived. Unlike obesity, which gets associated with sloth or some moral deficiency, the sleep deprived are praised for their drive and initiative. As it turns out those problems are two branches on the same sickly tree--sleep impacts obesity, which in turn also disrupts sleep. Not to fly in the face of your inherited Protestant work ethic, but skipping sleep is taking years off of lives and making those short lives less enjoyable and less productive. If you're looking to live a healthier life, go the fuck to sleep.