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With obesity and diabetes on the rise, researchers continue to look for ways to better control appetite and help people make healthier food choices. Part of the solution lies not in the kitchen but in the bedroom. Sleep has a far larger impact on appetite control, metabolism, and food cravings than many people realize. A focus on better (and more) sleep can reduce calorie intake and improve food choices for better long-term health.

The average adult needs a full seven to nine hours of sleep for the body to be fully restored and rested. Sleep time that is cut short by even one hour can result in symptoms of sleep deprivation, such as delayed reaction times, poor reasoning skills, and reduced muscle strength.  But lack of sleep also impacts eating habits.

Without adequate sleep, the body releases more of the fast-acting hormone ghrelin, which initiates the need to eat. This increased hunger is accompanied by lower leptin levels. Leptin works long-term to regulate energy balance by suppressing food intake. Low leptin levels also cause the metabolism to slow down. The alteration in levels of these two hormones often leads to overeating and gain weight, especially when sleep deprivation becomes chronic.

However, lack of sleep changes more than just appetite and metabolism. It also influences food cravings and choices by activating the endocannabinoid (eCB) system. The increased activity of the eCB system causes the rewards center of the brain to gain greater pleasure and satisfaction from high fat, sugary foods. In a 2016 study, it was found that sleep-deprived subjects chose foods with 50 percent more calories and twice the fat than when they had adequate sleep. The high rewards their brains received from these foods made it more difficult to resist fatty, calorie-rich foods.

Sleep timing can also affect eating habits. The human circadian system is designed to follow natural light cues to control both the sleep-wake cycle and eating habits. Hence, why people eat during the day and sleep at night. According to a Northwestern University study, people who stay up late and sleep in the next day are more likely to have poor eating habits and be overweight because their bodies are not following natural sleep-wake patterns. They are typically more tired, which alters the release of the previously discussed hunger-related hormones.

Because sleep is heavily influenced by personal habits, there are many things that can be done to improve sleep outcomes. However, to successfully increase sleep hours, any underlying sleep disorders or issues must be addressed first. Excessive snoring that is loud enough to keep a partner awake or frequent night waking may be a sign of an underlying sleep disorder like sleep apnea. A physician can help determine a course of action, which may include an anti-snoring mouthguard, therapeutic pillow, or CPAP machine.

Behaviors that improve sleep outcomes include:

  • Regular Bedtime: A consistent bedtime allows the body to adjust and follow its own circadian rhythms. These rhythms synchronize with natural light cues and time the release of sleep hormones.

  • Avoid Stimulants: Stimulants like caffeine block sleep hormones. Try to avoid them for at least four hours before bed

  • Turn Off Screens: The light emitted by some electronic devices stimulates the brain in much the same way as sunlight. Turning off screens to two to three hours before bed prevents a delay in the onset of sleep.

Adequate sleep keeps appetite, metabolism, and food cravings in check. A lifestyle that makes sleep a priority is one that will provide an opportunity for long-term health.

Sarah Johnson

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Tuck is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NBC News, NPR, Lifehacker, and Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.

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