Five ways to boost sleep's fat-burning effects

Have a spare tire around your middle? You might need better sleep! Find out how you can get a good night's rest, and what it means for weight loss.


You’ve heard of beauty sleep — but how about a lean-body sleep?

Sufficient rest and recuperation effectively reduces our stress hormone, cortisol. When we are sleep-deprived, cortisol levels rise. This hormone controls our appetite, often making us feel hungry even when we have eaten enough. It also raises blood sugar and insulin levels and results in increased fat deposition around the abdomen.

To further complicate the situation, high cortisol can negatively affect our sleep patterns, making it difficult to fall or stay asleep when we finally do go to bed. This increase in stress hormones also has detrimental effects on other aspects of our endocrine system, like thyroid gland function, which governs our metabolism — and in turn, our body composition.

Deep sleep is accompanied by an increased secretion of the growth hormone necessary for repairing and rebuilding body tissues like muscle and bone. This anti-aging hormone also reduces the negative effects of cortisol. Our growth hormone levels naturally decrease with age, and also with increased abdominal fat, leading to a vicious cycle of fatigue, excess stress hormone and belly fat.

How to get a more restful sleep
By applying the tips below you will not only improve your sleep, you will slim your waistline:

1. Get enough of it: A study by a team of researchers from Warwick Medical School and the State University of New York at Buffalo has found shorter sleep cycles are associated with an elevated risk of a pre-diabetic state, known as incident-impaired fasting glycaemia (IFG). IFG means that your body isn’t able to regulate glucose as efficiently as it should. People with this condition have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes and are at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke (and in turn, weight gain!).

When your sleep is insufficient, your cortisol and hunger hormones both surge, causing a corresponding increase in insulin. You also experience decreases in the fat-burning and appetite controlling hormones. Most sleep experts agree that seven or eight hours a night is optimal. However, some people may require more or less sleep than others. If you wake without an alarm and feel refreshed when you get up, you’re likely getting the right amount of sleep for you.

2. Aim for a stress-free slumber: If stress is still keeping you up at night, try one of the following suggestions below for at least three consecutive months. Remember that finding the right sleep remedy for you may be a trial-and-error process.

  • Relora: This natural herbal sleep aid is my favourite choice for patients who tend to wake up throughout the night, for highly stressed individuals, or for menopausal women with hot flashes that cause sleep disruption. Take two 250 mg-capsules at bedtime and one upon rising.
  • Passionflower: Passionflower is the herb of choice for insomnia. It aids the transition into a restful sleep without the narcotic hangover sometimes associated with sleep medications. As an antispasmodic, it is helpful in treating tension and stress. Passionflower extracts have been studied for their potential ability to decrease anxiety and prolong sleeping time. Take 100-mg twice daily.
  • Phosphatidylserine:  Phosphatidylserine is ideal for nighttime worrying. It influences the inappropriate release of stress hormones and protects the brain from the negative effects of cortisol. Take 100–300mg before bed.
  • GABA: This is a calming brain chemical. It’s well suited for individuals who experience anxiety, muscle tension or pain. Take 500 to 1,000 mg before bed.
  • Melatonin: Melatonin decreases as we age, as well as during times of stress and depression. Take 0.5–3 mg at bedtime. Try taking it under your tongue for faster absorption.
  • 5-HTP: A derivative of tryptophan and also used to create serotonin, 5-HTP has been found to be effective in sleep loss related to depression, anxiety and fibromyalgia. 5-HTP appears to increase REM sleep. It also decreases the amount of time required to fall asleep and the number of night time awakenings. Take 50–400 mg a day.

3. The darker the better: When light hits your skin, it disrupts the production of melatonin, a hormone essential to healthy sleep patterns and that also helps reduce the negative effects of cortisol. Even a small amount of light anywhere on your skin can cause a decrease in melatonin levels, which affects sleep and interferes with weight loss. According to a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, exposure to electrical light between dusk and bedtime strongly suppresses melatonin levels.  Results showed exposure to room light before bedtime shortened melatonin duration by about 90 minutes when compared to dim light exposure. Furthermore, exposure to room light during the usual hours of sleep suppressed melatonin by greater than 50 percent! This means wearing an eye mask is not enough. You must sleep in total darkness — in fact, I recommend getting specially made curtains that keep out excess light.

4. Keep it light and loose: Besides feeling comfy, your favourite PJs and blankets can actually help you sleep better — but not if they’re too tight or too heavy. Strange as it may sound, wearing tight-fitting clothing at bedtime — even your bra or underwear — appears to raise your body temperature and has been proven to reduce the secretion of melatonin and growth hormone. Your body should cool off while you sleep; therefore, heavy blankets should also be avoided.

5. Exercise early in the day: Regular exercise can certainly help you sleep better — as long as you do it early enough in the day. A late-night workout — especially a cardio session — raises body temperature significantly, preventing the release of melatonin. It can also interfere with your ability to fall asleep since it usually increases noradrenalin, dopamine and cortisol, which stimulate your brain activity.

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique.