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The Role of Sleep Deprivation in Causing Food Cravings

Fredda Branyon has dedicated her life to the advancement of complementary medicine.

Woman Sleeping

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If you find yourself snacking too often throughout the day, your mind and body might be telling you to sleep more during the night.

How much sleep did you get last night? If you got less than seven or six hours of rest, then you might crave pastries and other sweets the following morning.


Why does sleep deprivation lead to poor food choices?


A 2013 study from the University of Berkeley revealed that even a single sleepless night could increase your cravings for unhealthy foods. However, the hunger hormone called ghrelin is not responsible for your sudden boost in appetite for junk food. This misconception was already debunked in previous studies on the connection between sleep deprivation and unhealthy food choices. According to Jan Peters, a university professor specializing in biological psychology in Germany, placing the blame on hormonal dysregulation is "too simple." There must be a slightly more sensical explanation as to why people choose bad foods when lacking sleep.


Is sleep no longer a priority to some people?


Countless studies, including one from Harvard University, found that sleep deficiency increases the risk of obesity. Unfortunately, as life becomes more and more complex, people are getting less quality sleep, often by choice. For instance, so many of us are more than willing to sacrifice a good night's sleep for not one episode, but a full new season of our favorite show on Netflix.


Statistics from the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even revealed that approximately 1 in 3 people in America do not get enough sleep. Adding fuel to the fire, getting less than seven hours of sleep each night maximizes the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.


Is there a study explaining why we make bad food choices when sleep deprived?


32 healthy and non-smoking young men participated in Jan Peters' study, which the Journal of Neuroscience published in 2019. Peters and his co-researchers took blood samples from the men and performed functional MRIs twice: (1) after a night of restful sleep at home and (2) following a sleepless night in a lab.


All 32 men were given a well-balanced dinner on both evenings. In the morning, Peters and his co-authors initiated a decision-making task by asking the participants to choose between junk food and trinkets.


The participants spent more money on food after an evening without any sleep. And, following a full night of staying awake, the brain images of all 32 participants showed increased activity in the parts involved in food consumption. The results of the study suggest that sleep deprivation boosts people's desire for food more than anything else.


Why didn't Peters examine the hormone levels?


Giving her perspective on the results of Peters' study, Connie Diekman, the Director of University Nutrition at Washington University, said she was disappointed that the researchers excluded any changing hormone levels, as including the information would have helped determine cause and effect.


Despite the limitations, the study further strengthens the fact that good quality sleep is essential to making healthier food choices. Therefore, to maintain optimal health, make it a goal to sleep for at least seven hours each night.