The Link Between Obesity and Sleep Deprivation

Learn how poor sleep and obesity are linked and what you can do to break the cycle

By Nicole Gleichmann

May 4th, 2023

By clicking on the product links in this article, Mattress Advisor may receive a commission fee at no cost to you, the reader. Read full disclosure statement.

Obesity and sleep deprivation are both increasingly common health issues. With 41.9% of Americans meeting classifications for obesity, and at least one in three getting less than seven hours of nightly sleep, it’s clear that both obesity and sleep deprivation are major problems in our society.

We all know that diet and exercise are the cornerstones of most weight loss programs. However, science has revealed that gaining and losing weight is far more complicated than previously believed. Not only do hormones control everything from how hungry we feel to our average body temperature, but several other factors outside of diet and exercise also impact weight. One of these is sleep.

Read on to learn more about how sleep deprivation and obesity relate and what you can do to sleep better and improve your health.

How Poor Sleep Influences Obesity

Lack of sleep impacts weight gain and obesity in a variety of ways. Most notably, getting too little sleep causes a shift in the production of the hormones leptin and ghrelin.

Research indicates that getting too little sleep lowers the production of leptin, the fullness hormone, and increases the production of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Essentially, you’ll feel hungrier on days you don’t sleep well, which can lead to overeating.

On a chemical level, sleep deprivation also causes increases in cortisol and decreases in growth hormone, both of which correspond with an increased likelihood of obesity.

There are also more apparent impacts of sleep deprivation that we can see in our day-to-day lives. These include:

  • Less exercise: Getting too little sleep leads to daytime fatigue, which translates into less physical movement. This applies both to intentional exercise and moving around throughout the day. If you’re tired, you’re less likely to seek out physically demanding activities.
  • Less energy to cook: Home-cooked meals tend to be healthier than on-the-go food, especially that from fast food joints. When you’re tired, you’re more likely to pick up food than make it yourself.
  • High-fat and high-carbohydrate cravings: Research demonstrates that getting too little sleep leads us to crave foods with high fat and carbohydrate content. This makes sense, considering we haven’t fully recharged with a good night’s sleep, so our bodies crave high-calorie sources of additional fuel.
  • More time to eat: It’s easy to forget that less time asleep equals more time awake, and therefore more time available for food intake. Add this to cravings for high-fat and high-carb foods and hormone imbalances telling you you’re hungry when you’re not, and you have a recipe for overeating.

Sleep Deprivation and Obesity in Children

Sleep is vital for infants and children because growth and brain development require significant energy stores. That’s also why children need much more sleep than adults—the recommendations range from 14–17 hours for newborns, 10–13 hours for preschool-aged children, and 8–10 hours for teens.

But sleep isn’t just crucial for healthy development. In children, as in adults, sleep deprivation is a risk factor for obesity. In fact, sleep in childhood predicts not only childhood obesity, but obesity in adulthood. For example, one 32-year longitudinal study shows that each one-hour reduction in sleep during childhood corresponds with a 50% increase in the likelihood of obesity at age 32.

However, the effects can also show up during childhood. Project Viva, a U.S.-based study of 915 children, showed that infants who slept less than 12 hours per night were 50% more likely to be obese at age 3 than those whose sleep exceeded 12 hours per night.

The Impacts of Obesity on Sleep Quality

Unfortunately, the relationship between sleep deprivation and obesity does not appear to be a one-way street. People with obesity are more likely to suffer from insomnia or other sleep disturbances than those with a lower body mass index. Being overweight or obese negatively impacts sleep quality in various ways, creating a vicious cycle.

Often the impacts obesity has on sleep are not direct but instead are mediated by another obesity-related condition. Below, we explore the complicated relationship between sleep, obesity, and a variety of diseases and disorders.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

One of the most disruptive sleep disorders related to obesity is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA occurs when your airway is blocked during sleep, causing your body to increase your heart rate and blood pressure to wake you up so that you can resume normal breathing. While in children OSA occurs most commonly due to large tonsils, the primary predictor in adults is obesity.

In fact, 60-90% of people with OSA are obese, and around 40% of adults with obesity suffer from OSA. In addition, obstructive sleep apnea is also an indicator for several dangerous health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke, making the relationship between obesity and OSA particularly dangerous.

Just like we see with sleep deprivation, obesity and OSA have a reciprocal relationship, meaning they both contribute to one another. So if you have OSA, you are more likely to develop obesity, and vice versa. If you think you or a loved one might suffer from OSA, please seek medical care from a trusted healthcare provider.


Depression is yet another disorder that has a reciprocal relationship with obesity. This is particularly unfortunate when it comes to sleep because one of the symptoms of depression is sleep disruption.

Research suggests that depression and insomnia also share a reciprocal relationship. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, 75% of people with depression have trouble going to sleep and staying asleep.

Given the positive correlations between depression, sleep deprivation, and obesity, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this combination is overwhelming. Seeking treatment for depression from a qualified mental health professional is essential to breaking this cycle, and practicing sleep hygiene can help along the way.

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux, or gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a disease in which the acid and bile in the stomach enter the esophagus. This causes a burning sensation in the chest and regurgitation of bitter-tasting acid into the mouth, among other symptoms.

Because symptoms of acid reflux are often worse when lying down, the disease can negatively impact sleep. It’s also another way in which obesity can impact sleep duration and quality—research shows obesity is both a risk factor for developing reflux and complicates its symptoms.

If acid reflux keeps you up at night, consider investing in a wedge pillow or a mattress known to minimize acid reflux symptoms. Alternatively, if you’re up for a bigger purchase, an adjustable bed frame is a great way to position yourself for ideal sleep every night.

Chronic Pain and Arthritis

It’s not easy to fall or stay asleep when you’re in pain. Unfortunately, people with obesity are more likely to experience chronic pain, with prevalence increasing with increasing BMI.

One common cause of chronic pain is osteoarthritis, which can be caused by excess weight or pressure on the joints. Osteoarthritis has been shown to cause sleep disturbances, making this another way in which obesity and poor sleep correlate.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Many people deal with restless leg syndrome, a condition that causes intense and sometimes irresistible urges to move the legs. Restless leg syndrome tends to flare up in the evenings and when trying to fall asleep.

This condition is largely genetic, with 92% of sufferers having a first-degree relative with the syndrome. However, research indicates a relationship with obesity, as well, with participants in one study being 1.5 times more likely to have restless leg syndrome if they had a BMI above 30.

Cleveland Clinic notes that restless leg syndrome leads to trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, resulting in daytime sleepiness and poor daytime performance.

How to Sleep Better with Obesity

If you suffer from obesity, you know firsthand how incredibly difficult it is to lose weight. An excellent first step is working to improve sleep, which can help support other lifestyle changes like healthy eating and exercise.

How to Improve Your Sleep

If you struggle to get enough sleep, implementing some sleep hygiene tips and tricks can help. Sleep hygiene strategies help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep, and wake up feeling more refreshed.

While “sleep hygiene” might sound complicated, it just refers to a set of intentional steps you can take to improve the quality and duration of your sleep. Some of the most important parts of sleep hygiene include:

  • Following a consistent schedule: This is arguably the most challenging part for many people, as sleeping in on the weekends is very enticing. However, waking up at the same time every morning and setting a bedtime that allows for enough sleep is key to getting good sleep.
  • Sleeping in a completely dark room: This can be tricky for people who live in cities or have a bunch of electronics in the bedroom. We recommend investing in blackout curtains or blinds, unplugging electronics, or covering up any indicator lights that remain on when not in use. However, if you can’t get your bedroom pitch black, a sleep mask can help you sleep more deeply.
  • Not eating right before bed: Aim to stop eating two hours before bedtime. Certain foods trigger acid reflux, while others can spike your blood sugar. And it’s best for your body to be able to focus on repairing while you rest, rather than digesting.
  • Minimizing screen time before bed: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends turning off all screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime. You can also use night mode on many electronics, such as laptops and phones, to minimize blue light exposure in the evenings.
  • Only using your bedroom for sleep and sex: If you have enough space in your home that you can only use your bedroom for sleep and sex, that is best for your sleep quality.
  • Getting some exercise: Irrespective of weight loss, exercise helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, which dictates your natural sleep/wake cycle. When you exercise, you’re more likely to be able to sleep once it’s dark outside.
  • Avoiding alcohol and caffeine in the evening: Alcohol and caffeine both negatively impact sleep quality. Aim to avoid caffeine after lunchtime, and if possible, abstain from alcohol most nights.


Invest in a High-Quality Mattress

You can do everything else right, but if you sleep on an uncomfortable mattress, your sleep will still suffer. People with larger bodies have additional considerations when choosing a mattress.

For instance, because of additional body weight on the mattress, plus-sized individuals often perceive firmness levels differently than people who weigh less. Usually, this means that a heavier person needs a firmer-than-average mattress.

Along those same lines, heavier folks need thicker comfort layers, as you risk sinking into the less-comfortable transition and support layers if your comfort layers are too flimsy or thin. It’s worth researching to find a mattress with thick comfort layers and sturdy base layers.

Thankfully, the mattress industry understands that people of all sizes deserve comfortable, restful sleep, and the number of size-friendly mattress options increases every year. Check out our roundup of the best mattresses for heavy people.

Final Thoughts

Poor sleep causes weight gain, and being overweight makes it harder to sleep. If you want to break out of this cycle and lose weight, improving your relationship with sleep is essential. As your sleep improves, you might find yourself dropping pounds without having to try as hard as you normally would. But remember that holding extra weight can make it harder to sleep well.

If you find yourself struggling with sleep, talk to your doctor about potential links and what you can do to sleep better and feel better.