Sleep and Muscle Loss

In this post, I’d like to talk to you about how to retain lean body mass (or even gain some) while dieting, by avoiding common mistakes that lead to muscle loss. One of those mistakes is lack of sleep. I’m not sure about you, but in the last few years I’ve been hearing a lot about the effect of sleep on body composition.Specifically, I’ve been reading (in peer-reviewed journals) about how insufficient sleep can hinder fat loss or even lead to fat gain.

The earliest of these studies started with an observation of an association. In this case, researchers noticed that sleep duration has decreased over the last two decades and that a rise in obesity has paralleled the decrease in sleep duration.

Of course, this only reveals a correlation and correlation does not equal causation. So at that point, researchers began looking for mechanisms that might explain this correlation, and they wondered if they’d find a casual link between lack of sleep and gaining fat.

Indeed, they found a mechanism: even partial sleep deprivation increases plasma concentrations of ghrelin and decreases leptin.

Ghrelin is a stomach hormone that increases appetite (ghrelin goes up, appetite goes up).

Leptin is a hormone produced primarily by fat cells that signals your brain about the status of your energy stores (in fat) and energy intake (food / calories coming in). In that sense, leptin is an anti-starvation (anorexigenic) hormone (when leptin goes down, the “starvation” signal is sent, so your body starts to hold on to stored body fat in a variety of hormonal and metabolic ways)

That’s not all. Researchers have also discovered that reduced sleep can decrease physical activity-related energy expenditure. That’s not surprising. When you’re tired and fatigued from lack of sleep, you’re liable to move less in general, skip workouts or work out with less gusto.

Wait. It gets even worse.

A new study just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (October 2010) says that insufficient sleep may not only promote retention of fat, it may compromise the maintenance of fat-free body mass!

Insufficient Sleep Undermines Dietary Efforts to Reduce Adiposity. Nedeltcheva A, et al, Ann Intern Med, 2010; 153, p 435-441

After comparing the effects of 5.5 hours of sleep against 8.5 hours of sleep, they reported the following:

“We examined whether experimental sleep restriction, designed to approximate the short sleep times of a growing number of persons in modern society, may compromise the effect of reduced-calorie diets on excess adiposity…. The combination of energy and sleep restriction in overweight adults resulted in a modified state of negative energy balance characterized by a decreased loss of fat and considerably increased loss of fat-free body mass. Our experimental data now indicate that sleep plays an important role in the preservation of human fat-free body mass during periods of reduced caloric intake.”

The previous research had already made it clear how sleep deprivation could hinder your fat loss. The key finding of this newest study was how sleep deprivation under conditions of caloric deficit (dieting for fat loss), could adversely affect the metabolic effects of calorie restriction and lead to loss of lean body mass.

Based on this research, it appears that during times of calorie restriction, your body amplifies the metabolic, neuro-endocrine and behavioral compensations which oppose your attempts at fat loss.

In other words, depriving yourself of sleep is bad. Doing it when youre on a calorie restricted fat loss diet is double bad.

If you’re also stressed out, now it’s triple bad!

High levels of unmitigated stress can increase cortisol and are linked to increased visceral fat, insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, impaired glucose tolerance, altered lipid profiles and even a higher incidence of coronary artery disease.

Sleep deprivation + stress + low calorie dieting = “The MUSCLE-WASTING TRIAD OF DOOM.”

Now, we do know that including heavy resistance weight training (I mean heavy – none of that pink dumbbell or light-weight circuit training stuff) combined with adequate protein intake helps mitigate muscle loss while youre dieting in a deficit.

However, how much that will prevent muscle loss in the presence of high stress and sleep deprivation is unknown.

And by the way, if you’re on a low calorie diet, you’re stressed, you’re sleep deprived AND your protein intake is inadequate AND you’re NOT weight training, then I am not being overly dramatic in the least to say your lean muscle really is DOOMED! You’ll lose weight alright, but don’t be surprised under those conditions if you lose MORE LEAN TISSUE than body fat!

I’d like to think that getting 8 hours of sleep and keeping stress at bay is common sense advice, but these are actually the areas that get most taken for granted and blown off by even the savviest, most experienced bodybuilders and fitness practitioners.

In fact, I’d be curious to hear (via comments below) how many readers will fess up and admit to sleeping less than 8 hours a night while also dealing with high stress and simultaneously trying to lose weight on a reduced calorie diet.

The truth is, many people are out there searching for a magic diet or workout program while ignoring some of the simplest, easiest to apply lifestyle strategies such as good sleeping habits and stress management.

I’ve been getting tons of questions over the last month since the Holy Grail Body Transformation System was released and most of them are about the intricate details of the program: macronutrient manipulation, calorie cycling, nutritional periodization and so on.

Other people want to know what supplements to take or what specific foods are best to eat and in what combinations.

Given how most people are so easily overwhelmed, why not get the simple lifestyle stuff in order first… starting with a good night’s sleep.

Because it’s now science fact: Getting your zzzzz’s is crucial not just for getting leaner and healthier, but also for gaining and maintaining muscle.

For more information go to

Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle

About the Author:

Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author ofBurn the Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has writtenover 140 articles and has been featured in Iron Man Magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development,Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for and the nutrition editor for and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.