Talk about an enjoyable Rx!

What if we told you there was a medicine you could take that could help you lose 26 pounds in three years—and it had zero negative side effects, was totally free and improved your overall health and longevity?

Well this prescription exists and can be found right inside your home, right now, according to researchers of a new study published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Among 80 young, overweight adults who reported sleeping for 6½ hours or less per night, those who slept for 1.2 hours (72 minutes) longer each night for two weeks consumed, on average, 270 fewer calories per day. Some ended up slashing up to 500 calories from their daily menus without even trying to "diet."

Previous studies have linked sleep deprivation to overeating and weight gain over the long term, and these new findings show that ample R & R may help those who are struggling with the scale.

"This is almost like a game-changer for weight loss or weight maintenance," study author Esra Tasali, M.D., an associate professor of medicine who directs the Sleep Research Center at the University of Chicago, tells CNN.

close up of a woman sleeping in bed
Credit: Adobe Stock / DavidPrado

The participants, who were between ages 21 and 40, were coached through a customized sleep hygiene counseling session. (Psst … these 7 expert-recommended bedroom design tips and these 4 tricks for a better night of sleep share some of the secrets, too!)

"It was very personalized, focused on trying to review people's lifestyles, their work-related limitations, their family members, their pets, children and bedtime routines. Then we talked to them about improving their sleep hygiene, such as putting away electronics before bed," Tasali explains to CNN.

They were told to keep their physical activity and eating habits the same, and they slept in their own beds while using wearable devices to track total sleep time. Researchers tallied up caloric intake and daily energy stores through urine-based tests.

Since it was in a "real world" setting rather than a lab, and the urine test offered an objective report of calories consumed (rather than a less reliable self-reported recall), the scientific community feels fairly confident that these results are no fluke. Though it was a smaller study, it reinforces the notion that sleep is an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

"This is a very well-done study answering an important question," Bhanuprakash Kolla, M.D., a sleep psychiatrist and neurologist in the Center for Sleep Medicine and the Division of Addiction Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, tells CNN. (Kolla was not involved in this study.) "They clearly showed that as you increase the amount of sleep, energy intake [is] reduced, and this in turn led to modest reductions in weight. It is likely that if this were extended, there could be more significant changes in weight."

In fact, in the journal article, the authors suggested that eating 270 fewer calories per day could lead to a loss of 26 pounds over the course of three years, all thanks to sleeping more. No dietary changes or additional exercise required. (Although you could certainly amplify the health benefits by implementing some minor dietary shifts and hitting your exercise quota for the week.)

So how can simply snoozing more help people slim down so easily? The researchers believe it boils down to the key hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin tells the body, "Feed me, I'm hungry!" while leptin says, "Hey, we're full." And whether individuals are clinically overweight or at a "healthy" body size, getting enough sleep is important and beneficial to reduce carb cravings and tame appetite.

Plus, when we're sleep-deprived, the brain's reward centers seek pleasure through foods that can offer a quick hit of energy.

"The reward centers in the brain get more activated when you are sleep-deprived, which increases your craving for carbohydrates or junk food or a higher overall food intake," Tasali adds to CNN.

Sleep can also affect the circadian rhythm, impacting when we want to eat as well as what.

In terms of putting this research into practice, it's much easier said than done to sleep for 72 minutes more each night. But you can score some inspiration and advice from this recap of what one woman did for one week for better sleep, and it may also help to eat more of these 9 sleep-promoting food combos and ingredients!