More and more, studies are telling us that sleep, stress, and obesity are tightly bound together. And the link is tough to unravel. Over recent decades, concerns about sleep, stress, and obesity have been rising in parallel. Also, they seem to affect each other. Could it be that stress and sleep should play a bigger role in obesity care?
Stress and Obesity
For 60 years now, stress has grown steadily more common in the developed world. Experiences of stress in Sweden, for example, doubled between 1968 and 2005. Work and leisure activities involve more technology and mental stress. They are replacing more physical activities.
Observation studies link stress, anxiety, and depression to both weight gain and abdominal obesity. Stress can be a key factor in emotional eating. Cortisol release from stress can lead to higher energy intake and more preference for high-calorie foods.
But obesity itself can cause further stress in response to stigma and bias. Research by Natasha Schvey and colleagues showed that weight stigma can produce a cortisol response in both lean and overweight women.
And finally, stress and mood disorders are risks for less successful outcomes in obesity care. Weight loss and maintenance of a healthier weight become less likely in the face of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Sleep and Obesity
As the prevalence of stress and obesity have risen, so has the prevalence of unhealthy sleep patterns. Researchers suggest a connection between declining sleep duration and technology. Artificial light exposure, video entertainment, and computer use are frequently cited.
Observational studies suggest a robust link between too little sleep and obesity risk. Less sleep appears to promote more food intake. These patterns may be a function of changes in appetite regulation. They may also be a simple matter of more waking hours available for eating.
Likewise, healthier sleep patterns predict better outcomes for efforts to reduce and maintain a healthier weight.
Sleep and Stress
The relationship between sleep and stress is well-documented and works in both directions. Stressful events can disrupt sleep. Disrupted sleep can lead to more stress.
In a new review, Nina Geiker and colleagues tie it all together:
Not only do the adverse effects of stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity, and the effects of weight loss interventions. But evidence also suggests that improving nutritional status and sleeping patterns may reduce the severity of stress and other mental disorders.
Clearly, sleep, stress, and obesity affect health together. Perhaps obesity care that combines stress and sleep management deserves closer attention.