PATRICK ANDERSON: Counting sheep for a healthy weight

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University of Idaho Coordinated Program in Dietetics

Sleep is candy. I used to live by this phrase. I knew that even without sleep, I could still get things done. What I didn’t know is that sleep is helpful in more ways than one. We all know that getting good night’s rest will make us feel better the next day, but not many of us know that sleep can affect our weight.

Evidence shows that reduced sleep can confuse our body’s hunger/fullness signals. In simple terms, you can think of it like this: with a lack of sleep, Ghrelin the Hunger Gremlin comes out in force, encouraging you to eat more than your body needs. Ghrelin is like that voice that quietly tells you that you still have room to finish a bag of popcorn. In an everyday healthy life, ghrelin is an innocent hormone that is simply supposed to help you recognize when you are hungry. With less sleep however, you produce too much ghrelin and feel hungry more often, or for longer. With this, you can help prevent overeating simply by going to bed on time and reducing the release of ghrelin.

In today’s world, getting the recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours for adults), can be especially troublesome. The fast paced, stressful environment we live in creates problems that can keep us up at night. Many of the foods we may be driven to snack on are high in fat and sugar, and therefore high in calories, which can lead to weight gain.

So why count sheep? Counting sheep is done best in a dark, quiet, comfortable environment.

This environment is also one in which your body can release hormones that make you feel like sleeping. Counting sheep (or any other non-stressful technique) can help distract you from other things that may be going on in life. According to the American Sleep Association, some general recommendations to help you fall asleep are making a bedtime ritual, where you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, calming yourself before bed (aka counting sheep), avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine around bedtime, and to avoid watching TV or reading in bed.

In the end, what you are trying to do is train your body to recognize that bedtime is approaching, and that lying in bed means it’s time to sleep. By doing these things, you can count sheep for a good night’s rest, which will quiet down our friend (or foe) ghrelin, and enable us to move onto a healthier life.

American Sleep Association. (2017). How to Fall Asleep. Retrieved from American Sleep Association:

Golem, D. L., Martin-Biggers, J. T., Koenings, M. M., Davis, K. F., & Byrd-Bredbenner, C. (2014). An integrative review of sleep for nutrition professionals. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal, 5(6), 742-759.

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Patrick Anderson is a student in the University of Idaho Coordinated Program in Dietetics.

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