Sleep off your weight, children!

Over the past decades, children have been growing heavier all over the world. Today, between 20 and 30% of children in the US and Europe are overweight or obese. But child-obesity has also risen steadily in other regions of the world; an alarming trend, considering excessive weight at a young age has significant health consequences. Not only does it increase the risk of developing a variety of chronic diseases, but also that of social stigma and mental disorders. In addition to a genetic predisposition, the main causes include malnutrition, a sedentary lifestyle and the socio-economic environment.

But in recent years researchers have identified sleep duration as another potential factor. A review published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health in 2017 confirmed what dieticians have been saying for years: too little sleep can affect children’s eating habits and weight, increasing their risk of obesity - while sleeping longer can have the opposite effect, leading to a decrease in calorie intake and thus, weight. The two hormones leptin and ghrelin might be the possible causes for this phenomenon, by influencing the energy metabolism as well as one’s feeling of hunger and satiety.

Leptin is produced by the cells of the white adipose tissue and acts as an agent to signal satiety, as well as to increase our energy metabolism. Ghrelin, which is mainly produced in the gastrointestinal tract, acts as leptin’s counterpoint. It conveys hunger and reduces our energy consumption. Sleep has the opposite effect on both hormones. As the leptin concentration in the blood increases, the level of ghrelin decreases. Through these mechanisms, a connection between sleep and body weight seems very likely. In addition to the mentioned negative effect on weight, lack of sleep can also lead to behavioral and learning problems in children. So how much sleep is necessary and healthy? Individual needs can vary greatly and even change over the course of one’s lifetime. As a guide, the US National Sleep Association recommends nine to eleven hours for school children, and eight to ten hours for adolescents per night. Lack of sleep is one of the possible causes for obesity in children. However, it is often the result of many different factors. Due to its negative health consequences, lack of sleep should not be trivialized. Weight controls should therefore be started as early as during infancyuntil the end of puberty, either at home or during doctor visits. This way, any changes can be detected and treated in time.

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