Sleep Disorders

23 October 2009

Too little sleep won't make you fat

Skimping on sleep, is unhealthy, but it doesn't make people fat, according to a new study.

Skimping on sleep, is unhealthy, but it doesn't make people fat, according to a new study.

"We hoped we were going to find good evidence for that," Dr Diane S. Lauderdale said, "because it was such an interesting, intriguing, novel idea, with some reasons to think biologically it made sense. But we found nothing."

Chronic sleep deprivation is thought to be a risk factor for weight gain. While several studies have linked higher body mass index (BMI) to shorter nightly sleep, most have been cross-sectional, meaning they looked only at a single point in time -- making it hard to prove whether sleeping too little leads to weight gain or vice versa, Lauderdale and her colleagues explain in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Also, they say, most studies have relied on people's own estimations of how much they sleep at night, which are notoriously inaccurate.

How the study was done
To address this problem, Lauderdale, of the University of Chicago, and colleagues had people wear a wristwatch-like movement-tracking device called an actigraph, which can measure sleep duration as well as sleep fragmentation, or how often a person wakes up during the night.

They looked at 612 people participating in a long-running study of heart disease risk, all of whom were in their 40s.

While shorter sleep duration was indeed associated with higher BMI, as was more fragmented sleep, adjusting for ethnicity and socioeconomic status weakened the relationship.

And people who slept less at the study's outset were no more likely to gain weight during the five-year follow-up period.

Lauderdale and her team also found that the link between shorter sleep times and higher BMI was much weaker for people who did not snore, and much stronger for those who did.

"We were really surprised to find that the effect we were seeing in the whole study population was being driven by the very strong effect among the subset who snored," the researcher said in an interview. "We don't really know quite what it means."

New findings a ‘major step’
Sleep apnoea, in which a person wakes up gasping for breath several times during the night, has been linked to obesity, she added, but "snoring is not a very accurate marker of apnoea".

While most people with sleep apnoea snore, Lauderdale explained, not everyone who snores has sleep apnoea. Snoring could be a particularly good indicator of apnoea for heavier people, which might explain the findings, she added.

The findings need to be confirmed in other groups of people, the researcher said, and it would also be helpful to use a "good clinical diagnosis of apnoea" to separate those with a real sleep disorder from people who are simply snorers.

The new findings are "a major step forward for the field," Dr Sanjay R. Patel of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, writes in an editorial accompanying the study.

Research should now delve more deeply into the type of sleep people are getting, and whether this is influenced by BMI or vice versa, he adds. – (Reuters Health, October 2009)


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Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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