The Sleeping Beauty Diet: snoozing to lose weight

December 10, 2020 6 mins read
The Sleeping Beauty Diet: snoozing to lose weight

In 1966, rumours began to emerge about a secret clinic in Switzerland’s lush and upmarket suburbs that offered a short-cut to weight loss: sleep. Those seeking to trim their waistlines could book into the exclusive medical institution and take powerful sedatives which would place them in a medical coma for up to a week, eliminating the need to eat or exercise. Who wouldn’t want to wake up slimmer and trimmer if all it took was a week of z’s?

While the rumoured sleep clinic only existed (or did it?) between the pages of Jaqueline Susann’s bestselling novel, Valley of the Dolls, Elvis Presley allegedly followed the same ‘diet.’ The King of Rock reportedly consumed as much as 100,000 calories per day. His favourite food? Mega sandwiches, deep-fried in oil and packed with peanut butter, jam, crispy bacon and banana.

Because nothing could separate him from his love of fast food and party-hard lifestyle, Presley would opt for quick fixes to lose weight. Sources claim that he took sedatives to induce periodic comas, to avoid food and shed pounds. Did this “Sleeping Beauty Diet” contribute to his cardiovascular issues and fatal heart attack?

What is the Sleeping Beauty Diet?

Forty-five years after Valley of the Dolls hit shelves, clinical psychologist and board-certified sleep expert Dr Michael Breus brought the controversial diet back into the spotlight when he published his book, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep.

In the book, Breus explores the link between sleep and weight loss. Though he doesn’t advocate for the use of sedatives to sleep for long periods to avoid eating, he does lay out a plan which includes getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night. This is because sleep boosts your metabolism, which burns calories. Getting enough shut-eye also reduces cravings and suppresses appetite, leading to realistic weight loss.

The official statement at the time of the book’s release read the following:

“The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan is designed to help any person who has been frustrated by her inability to shed weight by giving her the tools to overcome the stress, poor habits, and environmental challenges that stand between her and adequate rest.

Sleep deprivation is a frustrating reality for many women faced with chronic stress or hormonal changes—and the fatigue, moodiness, and weight gain that come with it might just be the tip of the iceberg.”

Sleep diet put to the test

In 2017, a Channel 4 reality show called How To Lose Weight Well put the Sleeping Beauty Diet to the test. A contestant, Rob was put on the eating plan, sleeping on average 9 hours a night. He had to cut out drinking any caffeine or alcohol before bed. Snacks were limited to fruit, yoghurt and water to stay hydrated. Rob lost 14 pounds in six weeks and said despite being sceptical at first, he was convinced the diet works. According to the show, Rob was on a less risky version of the diet and could control when he goes to sleep and wakes up.

Sleeping Beauty Diet goes viral again

In an article published by Vice.com in 2017, Sammy Taylor investigated pro-anorexia blogs and social forums such as Reddit in which some users were promoting the more harmful version of the diet. Dieters anonymously shared how they had taken sleeping tablets to sleep beyond the regular 7-9 hours of sleep. One user with the screen name prettythin, described the diet as “perfect for the end of the school semester,” explaining how eating less, fasting and sleeping for over 10 hours led to weight loss.

In 2020, Google Trends recorded an uptick in searches for ‘sleep diet.’ Related searches showed further interest in food and sleep-related topics, with calories, sleep cycle and intermittent fasting at the top of online searches. The rising interest could be related to lockdown restrictions. According to a survey by the Cambridge Weight Plan, half of the country gained weight during the lockdown due to comfort eating. The report says people “social distanced from everything but their cupboards and fridges.”

Dangers of the diet

Food scientist Zenande Booi who is based at the University of Burgundy’s National Higher Institute of Agronomic, Food and Environmental Sciences in Dijon, France, says that while it might seem like a simple proposition to sleep and avoid eating, it can wreak havoc on your body’s digestive system and sleep patterns.

“When you eat, your body breaks food down into glycogen which gets stored in the cells and is slowly released to give you energy. The levels of glycogen in the body help to run important functions such as the circadian rhythm which helps us know when to wake up and sleep. The circadian rhythm also sends signals to the body to release hormones and regulates the metabolism.”

Booi explains that when the body doesn’t get adequate nutrition, this causes a disruption in the system, slowing the metabolism down. Ketones, which are found in the liver are then released into the bloodstream.

“It does this because there isn’t enough insulin to process the sugar that is released during the digestive process. This is how the weight loss begins as your body then begins to break down fat reserves instead, producing ketones and releasing this into the blood.”

While ketones can also be produced by following a ketogenic diet, Booi says when asleep, the release of ketones can have a detrimental effect on your health. Muscle loss and cognitive problems are some of the issues which can show up when you wake.

“Over time, abusing a diet like this can interrupt your sleeping patterns, and lead to fatigue, depression and low moods. Because you are sleeping excessively, your metabolism can get damaged and you can put back all the weight you lost when you start eating again, as you’re more likely to binge eat,” said Booi.

According to Booi other issues which could flare up related to excessive sleep and an interruption in the body’s normal metabolic processes include:

  • Memory problems
  • Depression
  • Low energy
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Headaches
  • Obesity

The table below shows how much weight you could lose versus what happens to your brain and body while in a medically induced coma from sleeping pills for 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours, and one week.

Sleep duration Brain Body Weight loss
24 hours Hallucination and nightmares may occur as the brain processes the state of inactivity. Blood sugar falls. Body begins autophagy, the process of resetting dead cells. 4 pounds
48 hours The propensity for irritability and a low mood increases. Autophagy increases by 30% as ketosis sets in. 8 pounds
72 hours Chances of heart disease and stroke spike as the body becomes dehydrated, affecting blood circulation. Rapid water loss as autophagy maxes out. 12 pounds
1 week Memory loss, headaches and forgetfulness occur as the brain is impacted by excessive sleep. As much as 10% of the body’s weight can be lost with fat stored in muscle reserves used as energy as it goes into starvation mode. 20 pounds