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What Is the Best Way to Lose Weight? 2 Science-Backed Steps

Keeping sleep debt low and syncing up with your circadian rhythm are two weight loss methods that are overlooked, yet hugely impactful.
Published
2022-06-27
Updated
11 MINS

If you’re trying to lose weight, it can be hard to know what to do. Of course, there’s the age-old advice of healthy eating and exercise, but there’s also a long list of other tips and tricks out there that promise to help you lose weight. From fad diets to weight-loss supplements and smoothies, strength training regimes to low-calorie eating plans, it‘s hard to know which advice is worth following. However, there are two underrated yet science-backed methods that are often overlooked. 

Below, we’ll dive into how keeping your sleep debt low and syncing up with your circadian rhythm can help with your weight loss goals. Getting these things right can not only make sure you don’t gain weight through poor sleep, they can help you lose weight  and maintain a healthy weight once you‘ve got there. Plus, they have a whole host of other health benefits, too. 

How Does Sleep Affect My Weight?

Before we dive into how exactly you can incorporate great sleep into your weight loss plan, it’s helpful to know how exactly poor sleep can affect your waistline. Here are the main ways. 

Not Getting Enough Sleep Makes You Hungrier 

Research has found just how linked sleep and weight are. For example, one meta-analysis found short sleepers — defined as those who sleep fewer than five hours a night — were more likely to be obese. Even children who are short sleepers — defined as sleeping fewer than 10 hours a night — were more at risk, too. 

And just one hour makes a difference. Reducing sleep by one hour per day was associated with a roughly 0.07 pound per square foot increase in body mass index (BMI). In other words, if you’re 5 foot 8, you’d put on 3 pounds just by sleeping one hour less a night. 

But why does this happen? One explanation is that sleep deprivation messes with your hunger hormones and can be a cause of overeating. Ghrelin — the hormone that makes you feel hungry — rises when you haven’t had enough sleep, whereas leptin — the hormone responsible for satiety — falls. 

Plus, levels of certain endocannabinoids increase, signaling to your brain’s pleasure receptors. This makes food feel more enjoyable and increases your cravings, and with increased hunger levels thanks to ghrelin, you’re much more likely to eat extra calories. 

Your self-control takes a hit too, impacting your food choices. Ever heard of someone craving veggies and whole grains when tired? Most of us reach for processed, high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods to satisfy this sleepiness-induced hunger. 

And while calorie intake increases when you‘re tired, the amount of calories you burn doesn’t. In fact, this may even go down. If you’re feeling tired and sluggish, you’re much less likely to hit the gym or do much physical activity at all. 

Beyond hunger hormones, sleep deprivation can also increase the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. And excess cortisol can trigger the body into storing fat, especially belly fat.  

Not Getting Enough Sleep Messes with Your Glucose Metabolism 

It’s more than just increased hunger levels, though. Sleep deprivation works behind the scenes to sabotage your weight loss efforts. Research shows those who get less than 6.5 hours of sleep a night produce about 50% more insulin and have about 40% lower insulin sensitivity than those who sleep for 7.5 to 8.5 hours a night. 

Even just one night of sleep deprivation can lead to increased glucose production, decreased insulin sensitivity, and evidence of insulin resistance. 

What does this mean for your body weight? Higher levels of insulin can lead to insulin resistance, which increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity over time. Having excess insulin and glucose in your system can also lead to your body storing more body fat.

Getting enough sleep looks slightly different for each of us, though. We all have an individual sleep need, or the amount of sleep we need each night. This is determined by genetics, just like height and eye color. 

The average sleep need is 8 hours 10 minutes, plus or minus 44 minutes or so, but 13.5% may need 9 hours or more sleep a night. Using the RISE app, you can find out your individual sleep need, so you can start aiming for this each night. 

Being Out of Sync with Your Circadian Rhythm Can Cause Weight Gain 

Even if you meet your sleep need, if you’re not sleeping at the right time for your body, you can still gain weight or have trouble losing it. This is where your circadian rhythm comes in. 

Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock that dictates your energy levels over a roughly 24-hour cycle. So, there’s a time when your body naturally wants to sleep and be awake. 

One study found those who are 12 hours out of sync — which might happen if you work night shifts — have 17% decreased leptin, 6% increase glucose, and 22% increase insulin. 

You don’t have to be a full 12 hours out of sync to see adverse effects, though. A 2021 study looked at mice who were three hours out of sync. They gained more weight, had higher blood sugar, and fattier livers. The good news though? The damage was reversed when the mice were aligned with their circadian rhythms again.

“When the external world doesn’t match the internal body’s cycles, metabolism pays the price,” said Mitchell A. Lazar, MD, PhD, the senior author of the study and the director of Penn Medicine’s Institute for Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism. “We saw this in our study, and we believe that this happens similarly when people work odd hours that don’t align with how human bodies are wired.”

Living at odds with your body clock happens if you work night shifts, but it can also happen if you simply stay up later at the weekends than you do during the week or have an otherwise irregular sleep schedule. This is called social jetlag

Studies show having social jetlag is associated with having a higher BMI. Even having just one to two hours of social jetlag increases the prevalence of metabolic syndrome, which includes diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. 

To find out when your body naturally wants to sleep, you can turn to RISE. The app predicts your circadian rhythm each day based on things like your inferred light exposure and previous night’s sleep. 

What is the Best Way to Lose Weight?

Of course, eating a healthy diet and exercising can still help you lose weight. But even if you‘re eating the best diet full of whole foods and working out to burn calories, if your sleep is off, your other weight loss efforts may be for nothing. 

So, whether you’re just starting to shift the pounds or you’ve been struggling to lose weight for a while, you need to get your sleep right. Here’s what to do. 

Step 1: Keep Your Sleep Debt Low

The RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have.

As we’ve shown, meeting your sleep need each night is integral to losing weight and keeping it off. You can do this by keeping your sleep debt low. 

Sleep debt is the measure of how much sleep you owe your body over the last 14 nights. While it’s better to get as close to meeting your sleep need each night as possible, you can “pay down” sleep debt if you have a night or two of not getting enough sleep. 

We recommend keeping sleep debt below five hours to be at your best. You can pay back sleep debt by: 

  • Taking naps: Check RISE for the best time to do this to not impact your nighttime sleep. 
  • Going to bed a little earlier.
  • Sleeping in a little later: Keep this to an hour or two to keep your social jetlag low.
  • Maintain excellent sleep hygiene: If you can’t schedule in any extra sleep, focus on your sleep hygiene, the set of habits you can do throughout the day to help you sleep at night. Sleep hygiene will help you fall asleep quicker and wake up less often, so you get more sleep overall. We share more on how to do this below. 

Can getting more sleep really help you lose weight? Research shows it can. A 2022 study found those who increased their sleep by an average of 1.2 hours a night ate about 270 fewer calories a day, which would equal about 26 pounds of weight loss over three years. 

Even more interestingly, the participants weren’t restricted to healthy foods or to small portion sizes. In fact, there were no instructions on their eating habits at all, only their sleep was manipulated. 

“Many people are working hard to find ways to decrease their caloric intake to lose weight,” said the lead researcher of the study, Esra Tasali, MD, Director of the UChicago Sleep Center at the University of Chicago Medicine. “Well, just by sleeping more, you may be able to reduce it substantially.”

Step 2: Sync Up with Your Circadian Rhythm 

The RISE app can tell you the best time to go to sleep.

Syncing up with your circadian rhythm is the other key thing you can do to help with weight loss. But how exactly do you do this? 

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule: Find the best times to go to sleep and wake up for you and try to stick to these all week, even on weekends.  
  • Go to sleep in your Melatonin Window: In the RISE app, you’ll see your Melatonin Window. This is a roughly one-hour window of time when your brain will be making peak amounts of the sleep hormone melatonin. Head to bed in this window and you’ll find it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. 
  • Keep meal times consistent: The timing of your meals can also impact your circadian rhythm, so aim to eat at roughly the same times each day, and avoid large meals close to bedtime when melatonin levels are ramping up. Melatonin reduces insulin release, so your body can’t process glucose as well. Avoiding large meals three hours before bed also helps prevent them from disrupting your sleep. You can learn more about how meal timing affects your weight here. 

Bonus Step 3: Improve Your Sleep Hygiene 

The RISE app can remind you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

Maintaining excellent sleep hygiene will not only help you meet your sleep need each night, it’ll help you feel sleepy when your body wants you to, helping you stay in sync with your circadian rhythm. 

Remember the 2022 study above that saw participants sleeping longer and eating fewer calories? They did this through one sleep hygiene counseling session. The RISE app can guide you to better sleep hygiene night after night by telling you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits. 

According to lead researcher Tasali, there’s one piece of advice that stands out: “Limiting the use of electronic devices before bedtime appeared as a key intervention.”

Here’s what else you can do: 

  • Get natural light first thing: Aim to get at least 10 minutes of natural light as soon as possible after waking up to reset up your circadian rhythm for the day. 
  • Get natural light throughout the day: Work by a window or take your workout outside. Getting natural light during the day can make you less sensitive to bright light come evening. 
  • Avoid bright lights in the evening: Bright light suppresses melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep. About 90 minutes before bedtime, put on blue-light blocking glasses and dim the lights. 
  • Avoid sleep disruptors too close to bedtime: Caffeine, large meals (as mentioned), exercise, and alcohol can all make it much harder to fall asleep. Check RISE for your unique cutoff time for these things to help you sleep soundly. 

You can learn more sleep hygiene habits to incorporate into your day here. 

Don’t Neglect Sleep When Trying to Lose Weight

Sleeping isn’t just good for your productivity, mood, and overall well being, it also has a huge impact on weight management. In fact, the best way to lose weight is by keeping sleep debt low and staying in sync with your circadian rhythm. This ensures you don’t gain weight through poor sleep, and you can boost your weight loss efforts even more, helping you shift the pounds.

The RISE app can help. The app calculates how much sleep debt you have and keeps track as you pay it back. It also predicts your circadian rhythm, so you can stay in sync with it. Finally, to make both of those things happen, RISE reminds you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits to improve your sleep, energy, and weight loss day after day. 

Learn more about the influence of sleep debt and circadian alignment on weight loss:

Summary FAQs

What is the best method to lose weight?

There’s no one best method to lose weight, but keeping sleep debt low and syncing up with your circadian rhythm are two underrated yet science-backed steps.

How can I lose weight fast naturally? 

Losing weight fast is hard and can be unhealthy. Focus on your sleep to set you up for success. Do this by keeping sleep debt low and syncing up with your circadian rhythm.

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Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

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