A few months ago, a friend asked me if I’d heard of the sleeping beauty diet. “Elvis used to do it,” he explained. “Before an appearance, his boys gave him pills to knock him out and he’d wake up a few days later, thinner.” While the tale seemed apocryphal, how one could arrive at this logic was fairly easy to understand. I mean, I certainly look and feel more svelte after a light dinner and long sleep.
If the Cloud were ever to burst, I’m quite certain that we’d be showered with naked and near-naked mirror selfies all taken before breakfast. And it was only a few years ago that a bout of gastric flu saw me in a 96-hour, Nyquil-induced torpor that necessitated the purchase of a belt. Admittedly, it’s hard to tell if the sudden weight loss was because I was too fucked up to eat and move or because of the the prodigious expulsions from either end of my alimentary canal. It was probably a little of both.
What I did know was that getting between seven and nine hours of sleep has been scientifically proven to support weight loss. People who are well-rested tend to make healthier food choices are less subject to cravings, are less hungry the following day, produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, and have the requisite energy to work out and build or retain lean muscle. Also, of course, an earlier bedtime obviates the need for a late night snack. Conversely, a lack of sleep has been shown to make a mockery of an earnest attempt to lose body fat.
Was more sleep the weight-loss panacea that we’ve been too vertical to recognize? Moreover, was this finally a chance to write an experiential health and wellness story that didn’t involve things being injected into me or flushed out of me?
Later that day I took it upon myself to look into the Elvis story and see if this was something I could conceivably try. The most complete but still unsourced stuff I could find ran parallel to what my friend had told me, the main difference being that it wasn’t the Memphis Mafia that kept the King snoozin’ and losin’ in the 1970s, but instead a Las Vegas quack who had put Presley in a medically induced coma. This tale also had Elvis falling out of his hospital bed and vowing never to try such an extreme weight loss method again.
In the process of figuring out whether the sleeping beauty diet was something I could try, I saw a concentration of stories from the summer of 2017 framing it as a disturbing new trend. This cluster began with a piece Sammi Taylor wrote for Broadly, which was posted on June 5th. In it, Taylor describes how people use sedatives to stay asleep for up to 20 hours per day and how, despite this tactic first being described in Jacqueline Susann's novel, Valley of the Dolls, back in 1966, the diet has been trending on pro-anorexia sites of late. Taylor also quoted a number of medical professionals who took a dim view of “narcorexia”—drugging yourself into an unconscious state in the hopes that you’re going to lose weight—saying that it was both dangerous and likely to make losing weight more difficult.
I was already coming around to the thought that narcorexia wasn’t an ideal thing for me to experience and write about, but more because I don’t have the time to be unconscious for days on end rather than its apparent dangerousness. But before I wrapped up my research I did notice something interesting. Two days after the Broadly piece came out, the Daily Mail posted a slightly more alarmist piece on the Sleeping Beauty Diet using Taylor’s article as its principle source.
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But what the Mail failed to include in the piece cumbersomely titled: “Sleeping beauty diets are putting women at risk of an overdose as they rely on sedatives to nod off for up to 20 HOURS a day to stop them eating” was that fewer than six months earlier, they’d published a piece extolling the virtues of a diet by the same name.
The first Daily Mail article was about psychologist Michael Breus’s “Sleeping Beauty Diet,” which was showcased on a British reality TV show called “How To Lose Weight Well.” In 2011, Breus—who markets himself as “The Sleep Doctor”—wrote a book entitled The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan that the show referenced. In it, he sets out a case for how a full night of quality sleep supports weight loss and recommends a raft of things that together constitute what is sometimes called “good sleep hygiene.”
Breus was clearly alarmed that the name given to the sound and healthful sleep regimen he prescribed in his book as weight loss support was being used with the ill-advised trend of using sedatives to sleep yourself skinny and penned a blog post intended to quell the confusion.
“At one point in time I had people come to me and say, ‘Is Ambien the diet pill?’” Breus tells me. “‘If I sleep more, do I eat less?’ But it doesn’t really work that way. When you’re asleep, your metabolism is much slower than when you’re awake so the idea of sleeping for 10, 12, or 15 hours doesn’t make a lot of sense from a metabolic standpoint.”
Breus adds that while it’s true that time asleep means time not eating, he cautions that people who try to sleep for longer than the 7 to 9 hours that he and the medical community in general recommend, often make up for those lost calories during the reduced hours that they are awake.
“There are about a million better ways to lose weight than something like this,” Breus says of narcorexia. But in some cases, he says if he offered a patient a pill with the promise of waking up thinner, they'd take it. "That’s the promise of this diet and unfortunately it’s an intriguing one. Thing is, it just doesn’t work and it’s downright dangerous.”
And come to think of it, considering that 70s Elvis is often remembered with the epithet “fat” and that he died aged 42, is it not ironic that his dubious connection to the “Sleeping Beauty Diet” should be a selling feature for people looking to achieve and maintain a healthy weight?
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