By JJ Virgin, Hive Advisor

Your neighbor’s barking dog and the construction crew down the street — Do they ever stop working? — kept you tossing and turning till 3 a.m. last night.

Is it a coincidence the scales aren’t budging this morning, even though you’ve been eating clean, lean protein at every meal, working out twice a week with that hot new trainer and trading the Cosmos for pinot noir?

I’ve got some unpleasant news: Research at the University of Chicago shows that, even if you follow a healthy diet and exercise program, not getting eight hours of sleep every night increases your obesity risk. Fat loss and fast metabolism are directly linked to your sleep quota.

That’s because numerous hormones become out-of-whack when you don’t get enough sleep, which can stall fast fat loss and make you a caffeinated mess. Let’s look at a few of those hormones:

  1. Hunger hormones. It’s no coincidence you’re experiencing an intense craving for crumb coffeecake after only five hours of sleep last night. Ghrelin, a hormone that commands your brain to eat, increases when you sleep poorly. To balance ghrelin levels, get a good night’s sleep, then start your day with a substantial high-protein breakfast. One study showed a high-protein breakfast reduces ghrelin levels so you stay full and focused for hours. Leptin, on the other hand, helps put the brakes on the brownie cheesecake. When you don’t sleep, you become more leptin resistant and your brain doesn’t get the message to step away from the dessert.
  2. Insulin. Sleep also affects your ultimate fat-storing hormone, insulin. When you eat protein, good fats, leafy greens and high-fiber starches, you stabilize blood sugar levels, eliminating the spike and crash that leaves you hungry and craving the donuts your co-worker brought in. Chronically elevated insulin, on the other hand, makes it more difficult to burn fat. The wrong foods aren’t the only things that raise insulin levels and make you insulin-resistant. Long-term sleep deprivation can also make your cells insulin-resistant, leading to higher fasting insulin levels. Besides impairing fat burning, these high insulin levels can lead to diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
  3. Growth hormone. You might discover the fountain of youth in your sleep. Not in your dreams but with human growth hormone, or “GH,” which prevents aging, builds muscle, promotes fast fat loss and boosts immunity. No wonder celebrities spend thousands a month on GH injections! Sleep helps your body naturally boost GH to help you repair and rebuild. No surprise, then, a study in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience found that less sleep means you release less GH.
  4. Cortisol. High levels of your stress hormone cortisol break down muscle and store fat. Your cortisol levels remain high for longer periods when you don’t sleep well. High cortisol burns up your energy-assisting B vitamins and you can’t make the neurotransmitters you need to sleep well. Cortisol also lowers serotonin, the feel-good hormone your brain eventually converts to melatonin for good sleep. Coincidentally, you’ll probably stop by your favorite coffee place for a caffeinated morning pick-me-up, further elevating cortisol. A cup of coffee can raise cortisol levels 30 percent for an hour! Additionally, caffeine can elevate cortisol levels in your blood for 18 hours.

Break the Cycle with These Seven Sleep-Well Strategies

Getting seven to nine hours of high-quality sleep isn’t always easy. I should know: I manage two businesses and am a single mom to two teenage sons, one of whom was struck by a hit-and-run driver last fall and left for dead. He has miraculously recovered, though, even at my darkest hour, I still made sure I worked in at least seven hours of sleep because it’s that important for health, well-being and fat loss.

These seven strategies helped me do it:

  1. Power down and unwind. You need to prepare for a solid night’s sleep. The most effective way is to power down an hour before you hit the sack. That “urgent” email from your boss can wait until the morning, and trust me, you’re not missing anything with late-night reruns and talk shows. Put your iPhone on “Do Not Disturb” mode and otherwise turn off electronics an hour before bed.
  2. Calm your mind. So you’ve carved out that hour before bed sans electronics. Replace the hour you spent watching Sex and the City reruns with a mind-calming routine. Meditation, a hypnosis download, a hot bath with chamomile tea and a good (not great) book, or deep breathing: Find what works for you to slowly shut down your mental chatter so you can drift into a solid night’s sleep.
  3. Avoid a nightcap. That second glass of pinot noir might knock you out, but it will also make you dehydrated, causing you to sleep poorly. If you have a drink with or after dinner pair it with two glasses of water. Just don’t use alcohol as an excuse to knock out earlier.
  4. Limit caffeine. I discussed caffeine’s problems earlier. Especially if you’re a slow metabolizer, a mid-afternoon java jolt can leave you jittery before bed. Keep the caffeine to morning hours and switch to decaf green tea by afternoon.
  5. Use a sleep aid if you need it. Your pineal gland secretes melatonin, but as you get older you’re making less of this circadian rhythm-regulating hormone. A supplement can help replenish melatonin levels, an option that is especially handy when you must travel to another time zone. I also like synergistic blends of valerian, chamomile and other herbs to help you gently drift into sleep.
  6. Stop eating three hours before bed. The 11 p.m. siren call of Ben & Jerry’s inevitably crashes your blood sugar (making you an excellent fat storer) and cuts into quality sleep. Follow The Virgin Diet Plate for dinner and call it quits for the day. If you’re hungry before bed, you didn’t do dinner right. You might be thirsty, too. A study at the University of Washington found that one glass of water before bed curbed hunger for everyone who tried it.

Keep exercise early. (But don’t skip out!) Even at my busiest, I don’t skip my workout, nor do I allow my clients to do so. Exercising too late in your day, however, can leave you wired before bed. Keep exercise during the morning or early afternoon.

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