Losing Weight: It's Not Just about Diet and Exercise

Ultimately, two simple factors determine whether we gain or lose weight each day: how many calories we consume and how many calories we expend. Because weight loss and weight gain depend on food consumption and activity, it's easy to assume diet and exercise are the only things that matter when it comes to losing weight. But despite this simple-sounding bottom line, the actual process of weight loss is a good deal more complex.

You may now feel tempted to exclaim, "Wait! You just said two simple factors. How is that complex?" Here's why: Multiple variables play a role in determining how much we eat and how much we exercise. Complicating the situation further, not all exercises are created equal, and food items don't come with a flashing neon number representing their caloric value. And your metabolism, the rate at which you burn calories, is determined by numerous factors as well.

While exercise and diet obviously are two of the keys to weight loss, there are other elements to consider. Among these other elements, getting adequate sleep and minimizing stress are two of the most important things you can do to maximize your weight loss potential.

Get Sleep, Lose Weight

Chances are, if you're sleep-deprived, getting a few extra hours a night will enormously help your efforts to lose weight. Multiple studies from around the world have proven that inadequate sleep contributes to overeating and weight gain.

Why does getting enough sleep have so much impact on your weight? Primarily because the amount of sleep you get each night affects the production of two hormones, ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells your brain you need to eat. Leptin lets the brain know when you've eaten enough and it’s time to stop. Sleep-deprived individuals produce increased levels of ghrelin and decreased levels of leptin.

Not only do sleep deficient individuals feel hungrier, they are more likely to crave sugary, high calorie foods with higher sodium content than individuals who get adequate amounts of rest, probably because they are seeking an energy boost. The higher calories lead to more fat, and the higher salt levels lead to increased water retention. Water weight is easier to take off than fat but still makes you look heavier.

Sleep deprived people are also less likely to get adequate amounts of exercise. You're not going to feel like working out if you're tired all the time. Along with the increased hunger and an attraction to higher calorie food, it's easy to see how this combination causes a vicious circle. And both men and women who get insufficient amounts of sleep almost invariably suffer higher levels of stress, which causes serious problems in its own right.

What is an adequate amount of sleep? While everything from genetics to stress levels to sleep apnea can influence how much you need, for most people, it's 7-9 hours.

The good news? In all of these studies, once the participants started sleeping more, the ghrelin levels went down, the leptin levels went up, and the hunger levels decreased. Stress levels diminished as well. The last part is particularly important, because stress also influences eating behavior.

Reduce Your Stress, Reduce Your Weight

Prolonged stress can lead to serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It also frequently leads to excessive weight gain. That's because your stress levels have an enormous influence on the amount of cortisol your body produces.

Cortisol is a necessary hormone that maintains proper blood pressure and energy levels. When your body produces extra cortisol to cope with short-term stress, the hormone stimulates fat and sugar metabolism as well as insulin release. The extra cortisol also increases your appetite, but an increased metabolic rate makes up for that during times of normal, limited, short-term stress. But when prolonged, excessive stress levels lead to chronic overproduction of cortisol, your body adapts in such a way that you continue to feel hungry but your metabolism actually slows down.

And as with sleep-deprived individuals, the chronically stressed are more likely to seek out high fat, high sugar, high sodium foods than more relaxed individuals.

Worse yet, excessive stress seems to affect where you put on the weight. Many studies indicate that the combination of prolonged stress and constantly elevated cortisol levels causes fat storage to concentrate more heavily in the abdominal area than under less stressful circumstances. Excess abdominal fat has been linked with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

What can you do to decrease your stress levels? Yoga or stretching sessions, lasting 20 minutes or longer, seem to produce immediate benefits that often increase over time. Spending more time outdoors, especially in rural or park-like settings, often helps reduce stress as well. Regular exercise is a great way to lower your stress levels, and prolonged, intense exercise is particularly effective. And, as previously mentioned, getting adequate amounts of sleep usually leads to greater relaxation. Many people also find meditation helpful.

Obviously not all the factors that contribute to sleep deprivation and excessive stress are entirely within your control. But if you want to cover all the bases in your weight loss regimen, getting more sleep and finding a way to limit stress are two of the most powerful things you can do to supplement your diet and exercise routine.