Sleep Problems and Obesity: A Vicious Cycle

Sleep is essential. In my opinion, it’s a non-negotiable, as I’ve written about before. I don’t compromise on how much I sleep, and I try to do everything possible to maximize its quality.


So many of your body’s essential functions – from immune function, to metabolism, to memory, to learning – are all influenced by sleep. As an athlete, entrepreneur, and just someone looking to perform at my highest possible level, sleep’s foundational to success. sleep-plan-child

More and more research is coming out around the specific link between sleep problems, such as sleep apnea, and sleep-disordered breathing, and obesity. What’s becoming increasingly clear is that it’s a vicious cycle.

Sleep problems and insufficient sleep during infancy and childhood increases the risk of becoming overweight and obese down the road. This is what researchers found in a recent study published in The Journal of Pediatrics tracking almost 2,000 children in England for 15 years. Their conclusions?

“Regardless of adjustment for any confounders or sleep duration, the “worst case” cluster [of sleep problem symptoms] had twice as high odds of becoming obese by 7, 10, and 15 years of age, compared with the asymptomatic group.”

The “worst-case” cluster were children where sleep problem symptoms, such as snoring, apnea and mouth-breathing, rise at 18 months, peak at 30-40 months, then remain high.Researchers also looked at sleep duration and obesity. They found a similar influence:

“…short sleep duration at 5.75 years was consistently associated with 55%-65% increased odds of obesity at 15 years.”

Looking at sleep and obesity in another way, researchers have also found obesity to be a significant risk factor for obstructed sleep apnea in adolescents, which often results in poor sleep quality. This was one of the conclusions made by an expert Adolescent Sleep Working Group of the journal Pediatrics, which published an influential technical report earlier this year on insufficient sleep in adolescents and young adults.

Okay, so we know poor sleep is associated with obesity, but the question becomes which direction is the causal arrow? Does poor sleep cause obesity? Or, does overweight and obesity cause sleep problems? This is what’s referred to in health research circles as reverse causality, where two variables both influence each other in mutually reinforcing (and often destructive) ways.

The main take-away? Sleep is really important. And if we’re serious about wanting to address the health and economic threat that is our nation’s current obesity epidemic, we ought to think more about how to ensure kids and adults are getting the quantity and quality of sleep they need to be healthy and thrive.


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