Break Your Weight Loss Plateau With These Simple Sleep Habits

Trying to lose weight but finding you have hit a plateau? Your sleep patterns may be to blame.

A weight loss plateau is a physiologic (normal) response to your body once you start losing weight, according to Dr. Marcio Griebeler, director of the Diabetes and Obesity Center at the Cleveland Clinic's Endocrinology & Metabolism Institute.

"It looks like your body is fighting to keep the weight as it was before," he told Newsweek, and many "counter-regulatory hormones" kick in, slowing down your weight loss.

At first, you will tend to lose weight because you have cut calories and lost water, fat and some muscle. This effect is temporary because as you lose weight, you start burning fewer calories and eventually reach a plateau.

A woman measuring her waist with tape.
A woman looks at a measure tape wrapped around her waist. As you lose weight, you start burning fewer calories and eventually reach a plateau. iStock/Getty Images Plus

"The same caloric restriction that you were doing in the past will not be enough to keep you losing weight as you are burning less calories," Griebeler said. To overcome this, sleep is one of the aspects you'll need to work on, alongside appetite control, healthy nutrition, exercise and stress management.

"If you do not sleep well, you release all those counter-regulatory hormones that make it much more difficult to lose weight. It is kind of a stress in your body. In addition, you will be tired during the day so you will most likely be less active," he added.

Here, experts outline ways to improve your sleep to push past a weight loss plateau, including simple habits to follow before bedtime.

Get an Adequate Amount of Sleep …

Dr. Danine Fruge, medical director of the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, told Newsweek that you should avoid fostering a lifestyle of sleep deprivation.

"When we do not get enough sleep, our body considers it a threat like a wild animal is chasing us all night. During this fight-or-flight response, fat storage hormones are released to conserve energy for our survival. This biological adaptation works well over the short term, but over the long term is very stressful and can lead to chronic disease," she said.

Sleep deprivation is also a risk factor for a heart attack. The average adult needs around seven to eight hours of sleep on most nights to prevent negative health consequences, Fruge said.

Griebeler recommends "at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep" every night. If you snore, you should talk to your physician to be evaluated for possible sleep apnea.

A woman with hand on bedside clock.
A woman with her hand on an alarm clock. Experts recommend that adults get seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. iStock/Getty Images Plus

… And Make It Good-Quality Sleep

Even if you manage a decent number of hours in bed, not getting enough
"deep restorative sleep" can cause weight gain and food cravings, according to Fruge. It can also lead to significant health concerns such as:

  • Memory problems (dementia, stroke)
  • Cardiac issues (atrial fibrillation)
  • High blood pressure
  • Mood issues (depression)
  • Immune function problems (infections and slower healing).

She added that the symptoms of not feeling rested after a full night's sleep include:

  • Needing an afternoon nap
  • Requiring caffeine and sugar to get through your day
  • Accidentally falling asleep (while watching a movie, as a passenger in the car, in a meeting or lecture and so on)
  • Waking with a dry mouth or a headache
  • Waking in the middle of the night without knowing why
  • Waking to urinate several times a night
  • Snoring—sometimes loud and sometimes quietly
  • Sometimes noticing a fast heartbeat
  • Observed breathing difficulty
  • Belly heaving and body jerking.

Fruge pointed out, however, that these symptoms are also observed during pregnancy, or when people are suffering from allergies, asthma, sinus and respiratory illnesses. They are seen often in obese people who have Type 2 diabetes, but also sometimes in thin people.

A woman sleeping on a bed.
A woman sleeping peacefully. Getting deep, restorative sleep is an important aspect of a weight loss program. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Evaluate the Quality of Your Sleep

Fruge recommends undergoing a sleep study or polysomnography, in which an EEG (electroencephalogram) will record your brainwaves to find out whether you're receiving the deep restorative sleep your body needs.

Sleep apnea (pauses in breathing associated with the complete closure of the throat) and hypopnea (when the pauses are linked with the partial closure of the throat) often go undiagnosed, according to Fruge.

Even mild cases of sleep apnea can cause significant health issues and deserve evaluation and treatment, she said.

"This is a correctable condition caused by disordered breathing during sleep that causes our blood oxygen level to go below 90 percent more than five times a night," she said. It also causes the fight-or-flight response that puts stress on your body.

Treatment for Sleep Apnea

A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device—a machine that blows air through a mask you wear while sleeping—is the "gold standard" treatment for sleep apnea, Fruge said. It is "by far the most effective for weight loss and reducing the aforementioned health risks."

There are many CPAP devices that are comfortable, compact for travel and quiet, so they're "well worth giving a try," she added.

Fruge recommended contacting the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to find a sleep specialist and sleep center near you for evaluation.

A man awake in bed at night.
A man awake in the middle of the night. Research has found that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is effective. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Combat Insomnia

Difficulty falling or staying asleep is common, according to Fruge.

"Sleeping pills, alcohol and the food coma may help us fall asleep but do not necessarily give us the quality of sleep that we need," Fruge said, so insomnia "can also lead to health issues including weight loss challenges."

Research has found that insomnia can be treated effectively with CBT-i, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. You can try CBT-i on your own using the "wealth of information" available for free online or hire a CBT-i certified sleep professional. They can coach you, even remotely, over a period to help you re-establish a healthy sleep pattern, which "could be the missing piece you need to reach your weight goal," she explained.

Maintain Good Sleep Hygiene

"Routine, routine, routine" is the key to improving your sleep so you can push past your weight loss plateau, according to Griebeler. He advised:

  • Making sure you get eight hours of sleep
  • Having your dinner earlier and not snacking afterwards
  • Not using electronic devices at bedtime
  • A comfortable temperature in your bedroom
  • No bright lights at bedtime
  • No noise at bedtime
  • Meditating or listening to calming music
  • Not drinking coffee at night.
A woman turning off a bedside lamp.
A woman turns off a bedside lamp. Be sure to switch off all bright lights at bedtime. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Fruge offered these sleep tips "to bust through a weight plateau."

  • Exercise daily, especially when you have had a stressful day. This can include an afternoon or evening session of light exercise, such as going for a walk or bike ride at the park. Low-impact, rhythmic or stretching exercises before bed can help relax you for a good night's sleep.
  • Practice mindfulness and take breaks throughout the day. Rushing throughout your day without a moment to reflect leads to deep thinking and processing emotions when you're trying to fall asleep.
  • Dial everything down. A winding-down routine in the evening is important for melatonin to induce sleep. This means lowering lights and sounds, not engaging in emotional or intense thoughts, as well as not trying to finish your to-do list and not watching bad news before bed.
  • Focus on the positive, picking out at least three good things that happened during your day, three people you love or "three things that are still good about the world." Meditate on them for the first five to 10 minutes after you turn out the lights. "This sets you up for weight loss and better sleep, as it is hard to lose weight when you are unhappy," said Fruge.
  • Create a relaxing environment. Surround yourself with pleasant aromas in a cool, dark setting and remove distractions such as electronics or flashing lights. Set sleep timers for audio or visual entertainment to keep them from bothering you all night. If you're bothered by people, pets and household noise, consider changing your sleep quarters temporarily until you establish a healthier sleep pattern.
  • Don't eat candy before bed. Avoid sweet snacks or a heavy meal within three hours of bedtime.
  • Keep a sleep and weight journal to keep track and troubleshoot any problem.
  • Learn as much as you can about sleep. "Every week I see firsthand the amazing difference that it makes when people learn what to do to improve their sleep," Fruge said, because "we don't know what we don't know."
A man looking at phone in bed.
A man looks at his cellphone in bed. For a good night's sleep, avoid using electronic devices at bedtime. iStock/Getty Images Plus