By Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM
We’re now officially deep in the holiday season, that time of year when holiday parties, decadent treats, and frequent toastings of good cheer can make it easy to put on extra weight. Looking for some help to avoid the seasonal weight gain? In addition to the standard (and very good) advice—be selective with your indulgences, fill up on healthy foods before hitting the holiday buffet, drink water in abundance and everything else in moderation—I’d like to add another strategy to the list: get plenty of sleep.
Sleep remains an underrated tool in the weight-management arsenal. A regular routine of sufficient, high-quality sleep can make a real difference in the ability to maintain a healthy weight, and can help to reduce the risks of serious health problems including type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders. New research indicates that the sleep hormone melatonin may encourage weight loss, by increasing the presence of a particular kind of fat that actually helps burn energy. This may sound surprising, that the presence of fat in the body leads to weight-loss inducing fat burning. In recent years scientists have identified specific types of fat that burn energy rather than storing it, as regular fat cells do. One of these types of fat is a so-called “beige fat,” which is found near the collarbone and along the spine in adult humans. (Another recently identified fat in adults is “brown fat,” which also burns energy.) Stimulating the presence of energy-burning body fats has been identified as a prospective treatment for obesity, as well type 2 diabetes.
A team of researchers from Spain and Texas has found that melatonin increases the presence of beige fat in rats given a 6-week regimen of orally-delivered melatonin. Their experiment included both obese rats with type 2 diabetes and healthy-weight rats that were diabetes free. Half of the rats (both obese and normal weight) were given melatonin in their drinking water every day for 6 weeks, while the remaining rats were given no supplemental melatonin. At the end of the 6-week period, rats that received the oral melatonin displayed increased presence of beige fat—this included both obese and lean rats. Researchers found that the rats who received melatonin had increased their sensitivity to the thermogenic effects of both cold and exercise. Thermogenic processes in the body—including exertion through exercise and activity, generating heat in reaction to cold temperatures, digestion of food and sleeping —raise metabolic rate and cause the body to burn additional energy. According to these study results, melatonin may boost beige fat stores and trigger an increase in energy burn.
These latest findings build on earlier research that demonstrated that supplemental melatonin slowed weight gain, lowered blood pressure and improved glucose function in obese, type-2 diabetic rats. Other research also suggests melatonin may have a role to play in treating metabolic dysfunction and disease. Low melatonin levels have been linked to insulin resistance and associated with elevated risk for type 2 diabetes. Supplemental melatonin given to mice and other animals has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, lower blood sugar and decrease blood pressure.
So, should you start taking melatonin supplements in order to help shed a few pounds? The answer is no—for a few reasons. While these results are promising and in line with earlier discoveries, we still don’t know enough yet about how melatonin functions in relation to fat production and metabolic function, and how supplemental melatonin might best be used safely and effectively as a weight-loss treatment, or a therapy for metabolic disease. The body’s natural production and calibration of melatonin is complicated and incredibly precise. Melatonin supplements, even taken in recommended dosages, can elevate levels of the hormone to several times greater than normal. This can result in disruption to circadian rhythms and to a healthy sleep cycle—an outcome that isn’t good for overall health or for weight control.
The good news is there are ways to stimulate the body’s own natural production of melatonin without drugs or supplements. These strategies are also, not surprisingly, part of the foundation for a good night’s sleep:
Avoid nighttime exposure to light. Melatonin levels rise in the body after dark, and fall back during daylight hours. Artificial light in the evening hours can delay melatonin release and disrupt sleep-wake cycles. Keep electronics—including computers and television—out of the bedroom. Make sure your bedroom is dark and protected from outside lights. Give yourself an hour or so before bed away from brightly-lit digital screens, to allow your body to respond to the evening’s darkness.
Soak up light early in your day. Taking in light during the daylight hours—especially sunlight—can strengthen circadian rhythms and help to avoid melatonin deficiency. Take some time to walk outside in the morning, or make sure you’re working in proximity to a window in order to provide your body with some exposure to sunlight.
Exercise regularly. Physical activity is another way to strengthen healthy circadian function and improve sleep. It’s also a critical aspect of long-term weight control. Schedule your exercise no closer than 3 hours before bedtime, so that the exertion doesn’t interfere with sleep. If you can exercise outdoors in the daylight, even better.
There are also a number of foods that contain melatonin, which fit well into a healthy diet. Almonds and walnuts, sunflower seeds, tart cherries, tomatoes and fennel, as well as the spices cardamom and coriander are good sources of melatonin.
This latest discovery of the influence of melatonin on energy-burning fat may eventually develop into a new form of treatment for obesity and its related illnesses, which are epidemic in the United States and around the world. It’s critically important research. Equally important is understanding how we can stimulate our own bodies’ melatonin production, to protect health and improve sleep.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™