By Dr. Mercola
In the US, more than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. Eighteen percent of American children between the ages of six and 11 are in the obese category—up from seven percent in 1980.1
Five percent of American children are “severely obese,” which puts them at grave risk for chronic diseases which typically only afflict adults, such as heart and liver disease.
It’s an epidemic that likely has just as many causes as it does consequences, though it’s becoming increasingly clear that lifestyle choices are a key factor. Diet and inactivity certainly play a role, but so, too, does sleep – or rather, a lack of it.
Children Who Sleep More Eat and Weigh Less
If your child is overweight, making sure he or she gets proper sleep each night may help with weight loss and maintenance.
The biological mechanisms linking sleep deprivation and weight gain are numerous, but include metabolic changes, altered insulin sensitivity, and biological stress mechanisms that affect gene expression.
In the latest study, children aged 8 to 11 either increased or decreased their time in bed by 1.5 hours a night for one week, then reversed the schedule for another week. When the children slept more, there were significant benefits reported, including:2
- Consuming an average of 134 fewer calories per day
- Weighing half a pound less
- Lower levels of the hormone leptin
When you are sleep deprived, your body decreases production of leptin, the hormone that tells your brain there is no need for more food. At the same time it increases levels of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger, a recipe for increased appetite and weight gain. As the study’s lead author noted:3
“Findings from this study suggest that enhancing school-age children's sleep at night could have important implications for prevention and treatment of obesity."
Mounting Research Shows Too Little Sleep Fuels Weight Gain
It’s far from the first time that too little shut-eye has been linked to weight gain and obesity. In 2011, researchers similarly found that young children who sleep less have a significantly increased risk of having a higher body mass index (BMI) by middle childhood.
Each additional hour of sleep per night at ages 3 to 5 was associated with a 61 percent reduction in the risk of being overweight or obese at age 7.4 And, significantly, the increases in weight were due to increases in fat mass, specifically.
Earlier this year, separate research also showed that getting just one extra hour of sleep a night was linked to a 28 percent lower risk of being overweight and a 30 percent lower risk of being obese.5
On the other hand, kids who used electronic devices at bedtime were nearly 1.5 times more likely to be overweight. Among those who had three or more such devices in their bedroom (such as a TV, computer and video games), the risk jumped to over 2.5 times.
Part of the problem is that some kids are staying up later than they should to watch TV or play video games, and this means they’re sacrificing valuable sleep time.
Your circadian rhythm has evolved over hundreds of generations to align your physiology with your environment. Your body clock is "set" to sleep at night and stay awake during daylight hours. If you are deprived of sleep, conflicting signals get sent to your body.
How Lack of Sleep Wreaks Havoc on Your Weight
One way this occurs, as mentioned, is by altering levels of important hormones linked with appetite and eating behavior. In one 2010 study,6 researchers found that people who slept only four hours for two consecutive nights experienced:
- 18 percent reduction in leptin
- 28 percent increase in ghrelin
This combination leads to an increase in appetite. Additionally, sleep deprivation tends to lead to food cravings, particularly for sweet and starchy foods. Researchers have suggested that these sugar cravings stem from the fact that your brain is fueled by glucose (blood sugar);
Therefore, when lack of sleep occurs and your brain is unable to properly respond to insulin (which drives glucose into brain cells) your brain becomes desperate for carbohydrates to keep going. If you're chronically sleep deprived, consistently giving in to these sugar cravings will virtually guarantee that you'll gain weight.
Getting too little sleep also dramatically decreases the sensitivity of your insulin receptors, which will raise your insulin levels. This too is a surefire way to gain weight, as the insulin will seriously impair your body's ability to burn and digest fat. It also increases your risk of diabetes. In short, sleep deprivation puts your body in a pre-diabetic state, which can lead to increased weight and decreased health.
How Much Sleep Do Children Need?
Everyone’s sleep needs are different depending on stress, activity, age, health and other factors. As a general rule, however, children need significantly more sleep than adults. Experts recommend:
- Toddlers (1-3 years): 12-14 hours a night
- Preschoolers (3-5 years): 11-13 hours a night
- School-aged children (up to 12 years): 10-11 hours a night
- Teens: About 9 hours a night
You needn’t get overly concerned with the numbers, however, as your child’s behavior and mood may be the best indications of whether or not they’re getting enough sleep. If your child is difficult to wake up in the morning, it’s a sign he or she probably needs to sleep longer. Excessive fussiness, irritability, crying or tantrums can also be related to too little sleep. Frequent yawning throughout the day is another dead giveaway that your child may need more shut-eye.
How to Help Your Child Sleep Better
If your child is having trouble sleeping, what can you do? Go after the source of the problem by resolving the common culprits:
- Diet: Is your child eating large amounts of sugar or grains, or consuming sugary or caffeine-laden beverages like soda or fruit juice? Diet sodas and fruit juices are not any better. Cut these out first and your child will probably see results in both their weight and sleep patterns.
- TV, Video Games and Other Distractions: Many kids stay up late watching TV, surfing the Web or playing video games, then have trouble falling asleep. Turning off the TV at a set time, or removing the TV and computer from your child's bedroom, should be another step on your list if you want to ensure a good night's sleep.
- Stress: As with adults, stress can both lead to overeating and also keep kids up at night. Is your child worrying about an upcoming test at school or having trouble with friends? Make sure you help them to address their worries. One proven, effective method of doing this is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), a form of psychological acupressure that I often recommend for stress relief for adults, but it can be used for kids, too.
- Exercise: If your child is sedentary, it could be impacting both their weight and their sleep patterns. On the other hand, exercising -- or playing tag outdoors, riding bikes, etc. -- for at least 30 minutes every day can help your child stabilize their weight and even fall asleep. Exercise can also help your child release underlying anxieties that might impair sleep as well.
I also suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night's Sleep for 33 simple tips on improving your sleep and that of your children. Whether you are not able to fall asleep, wake up too often, or don't feel well rested when you wake up in the morning, these guidelines will provide you with various useful techniques to improve sleep problems for your whole family. Some of my recommendations include:
- Avoid bedtime snacks, particularly grains and sugars, which will raise your and your children's blood sugar and inhibit your sleep.
- Sleep in complete darkness or as close to it as possible. If there is even the tiniest bit of light in the room, it can disrupt your circadian rhythm and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. If your child needs a night-light, use a red light, as it has a wavelength that has minimal impact on your melatonin production.
- Keep the temperature in the bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their homes and particularly the upstairs bedrooms too hot.
5 More Tips to Help Your Child Lose Weight
Proper sleep is important, but it’s not the only factor in weight gain. What else can you do to help your child stay on track with a healthy weight?
1. Replace Sugary Juices and Soft Drinks with Pure Water
Children can easily cut down on the amount of sugar they eat by eliminating soda and juice and only drinking water. This step alone can have a dramatic affect on your child’s weight and health, since every daily soft drink or sugar-sweetened beverage consumed increases the risk of obesity by a whopping 60 percent.
2. Offer Plenty of Whole Foods
It’s important for parents to encourage their children to eat healthy, nutritious foods, focusing on fresh whole foods (preferably organic whenever possible). This does not mean you should not allow your child to eat when he’s hungry, however. Children need calories and nutrients to grow and develop -- just make sure to encourage healthy foods and bypass junk and processed foods.
Remember that any meal or snack high in carbohydrates or sugars generates a rapid rise in your child’s blood glucose level. To adjust for this rise, the pancreas secretes insulin into their bloodstream, which lowers glucose (sugar) levels. Insulin is essentially a storage hormone, which is used to store the excess calories from carbohydrates in the form of fat.
Insulin, stimulated by excess carbohydrates in over consumption of grains, starches and sweets, is responsible for your overweight child’s bulging tummy and fat rolls. Even worse, high insulin levels suppress two other important hormones -- glucagons and growth hormones -- that are responsible for burning fat and sugar and promoting muscle development, respectively. So insulin from excess carbohydrates promotes fat, and then wards off your body's ability to lose that fat.
3. Decrease or Eliminate TV and Screen Time and Remove the TV from Your Child’s Bedroom
TV is often a destructive influence on children. Not only does it encourage inactivity, but it also exposes them to commercials promoting worthless foods. Just as you don’t want your child exposed to ads for cigarettes during Saturday morning cartoons, neither should your kids be bombarded by non-stop commercials for sugary foods and snacks. Alternatively, you can implement a rule that allows your child one minute of video (TV or game) time for every minute of exercise. Or, join millions of families that use services like Netflix primarily because you choose each piece of media you or your child watches and it is always advertisement-free.
4. Increase Exercise
Exercise is extremely important for all children. Your overweight or obese child needs at least 30 minutes of activity a day, which should ideally include some higher-intensity activities (such as sprinting after your dog or playing a game of tag). Any activity that gets your child up and away from the television set, video game or computer is a good idea. Encourage physical activity that you can do together as a family, such as bike rides, hikes or a family game of softball.
5. Help Your Child Address Emotional Eating
Emotions play a major role in childhood obesity and, often, weight loss efforts get sabotaged by emotional eating. Your child may also feel depressed or anxious about their weight, adding to the vicious cycle. And, sugar is highly addictive, making giving up soda, sweets and carbs difficult even for adults. EFT can again be profoundly helpful here in alleviating food cravings and also the underlying emotional challenges, such as low self-esteem, that can lead your child to eat unhealthy food or overeat.