Slimming during your sleep

Losing weight during sleep (Photo: RelaxingMusic)

Losing weight during sleep (Photo: RelaxingMusic)

When you go to bed and close your eyes you might start a process of losing weight. It is really contrary to what you would believe. The normal theory is if energy in through food exceeds energy out through exercise you will gain weight. And during sleep you don’t get much exercise unless you are sleep-walking. But read on and you will learn what a little cold and the very small pineal gland can do to your body.

The pineal gland, or the “third eye” as it has sometimes been called, is a small endocrine gland situated in the  brain. Its shape resembles a tiny pine cone, hence its usual name. It seems to have acted as a light sensitive eye in some ancient animals and still does in a few surviving species like the lamprey, thus the naming as the third eye. As a matter of fact light still regulates its activity. Light signals are sent from photosensitive cells in our eyes and through a brain pathway to the pineal gland that in turn regulates our circadian rhythm that is so vital to proper sleep. It does this by producing melatonin during the night since the production of melatonin is stimulated by darkness but inhibited by light.

The illusive brown fat

Now we have to look at brown fat to complete the story. Brown fat is one of two types of fat found in mammals. The other type is the normal white fat that we only use for energy storage. However, the primary function of brown fat is not to store energy but to generate body heat. This is vital to newborn babies that cannot shiver and it makes up about 5% of their body mass. It is located on the back, along the upper half of the spine and toward the shoulders. Brown fat cells are actually more related to muscle cells than to white fat cells in that they carry a much higher number of iron-containing mitochondria, the energy machines of our cells, and more capillaries to supply their greater oxygen needs. Both factors that create the brown colour.

The brown fat will decrease with age and was initially believed to be almost non existent in adults. However, new imaging technologies have found small amounts in the neck, upper back, and clavicles of adults.  Aside from knowledge of its anatomic presence, little was known about the role of brown fat in adults until the past few years. Now, new research has shown that it also can contribute to regulating body temperature in adults in that this highly metabolically active tissue will burn energy to generate heat when we are exposed to cold temperatures. Dutch researchers subjected a group of people to a 15-16 ºC temperature for 6 hours per day and found that the brown fat increased its metabolic activity and became more efficient in keeping us warm. Similarly, Japanese researchers exposed healthy human subjects to cold and found an increase in brown fat activity and energy expenditure, and a decrease in body fat mass at the end of the study. The authors of both the Dutch and Japanese studies concluded that regular exposure to colder temperatures could be effective in reducing the prevalence of obesity in the population.

Melatonin an alternative to cold

Being cold is not everyones cup of tea (Photo: ObertoMaidelys)

Being cold is not everyones cup of tea (Photo: ObertoMaidelys)

Now we might not like to spend time in cold temperatures to lose body weight, but, you guessed it, the pineal gland comes to the rescue. Apart from regulating the circadian rhythm, melatonin is also involved in energy metabolism and body weight control. Melatonin promotes the recruitment of brown fat cells and enhances their activity, thus raising the body’s basal metabolic rate. And there is more. Spanish scientists have an explanation to the puzzling conundrum of the effect melatonin has in countering obesity. They found that melatonin can transform white fat to beige fat, a structure with similar effects to brown fat. While white fat stores calories leading to weight gain, beige fat helps regulate body weight by burning calories.

So a good night’s sleep might stimulate your melatonin production and help you lose weight. If you’re a light sleeper you might be happy to know that melatonin can also be found in fruit and vegetables like mustard, Goji berries, almonds, sunflower seeds, cardamom, fennel, coriander and cherries. Sleeping in the dark and consuming the right fruit and vegetables could help control weight gain and prevent cardiovascular diseases associated with obesity. And why not the occasional stay in a cold environment. There are melatonin pills available as well for the lazy. And just before you go overboard with your sleep patterns, you should know that some of the data come from animal experiments and will still need to be confirmed in humans. But why destroy a good story?

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