Lack of sleep makes us hungrier

My eye was caught by the report of a study presented this week at the American Heart Association meeting in Atlanta in the US. In short, what this research found is that sleep deprivation led to increased eating (in the order of about 300 calories a day). This is not the first study to link shortened sleep duration with enhanced food consumption. Previous work has shown that sleep deprivation may:

  • Increase levels of ghrelin – a hormone that stimulates appetite
  • Reduce levels of leptin – a hormone that suppresses appetite (and also speeds the metabolic rate)

Perhaps not surprisingly, previous evidence has linked shorter sleep duration with an enhanced risk of being overweight or obese.

This recent research should remind us, I think, of the importance of sleep for optimal health. We have evolved to spend about a third of our lives asleep, so perhaps it’s no surprise that sleep turns out to have some vital functions for us. It occurs to me that many of us live in cultures were getting enough sleep can be challenging.

First of all, it’s probably fair to say that many of us are ‘busier’ now than our parents at grandparents were at our age. Working hours have generally increased, for instance. And now we have other distractions in the form of television (right through the night, if we wish) and the internet (on tap, 24 hours a day). It is my experience that when individuals have lots to do, sleep is usually the first thing they forgo. For many, sleep can seem like a relatively expendable commodity. Some people actually feel guilty or somehow inadequate for getting decent amounts of sleep. Other pride themselves on their (apparent) ability to get by on a few hours of sleep each night.

I’ve learned, over the years (partly through my interest in health and partly through personal experience), that sleep is something that many of us could do with valuing more. Viewing it as something that can contribute to both the quality and quantity of our lives makes it easier to justify devoting a bit more time to sleep.

If we were keen to get some more sleep, how might we do it? For most individuals, extending sleep into the morning is a bit of a non-starter. Individuals may have, for example, jobs to go to or kids to get to school. For the vast majority of people, a more practical way of getting more sleep is simply to go to bed earlier.

One thing that worked wonders for me is simply to stop watching television in the evening (actually, I don’t watch television at other times too, unless the rugby’s on). Since curing myself of my TV addiction getting on for 5 years ago, I’ve had much less reason to stay up, and have been able to get to bed earlier as a result.

Many sleep specialists recommend establishing a ‘sleep schedule’, which essentially means going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. I can see the sense in this, but my experience is that most people can’t make this work – there’s usually too many variables and commitments to make this practical. However, this does not mean that getting into bed a bit earlier on an occasional basis will not help to wipe about a bit of ‘sleep debt’ and reap dividends in terms of energy and general health.

Imagine eating dinner at 7.00 or 8.00 pm and relaxing afterwards for a couple of hours or even doing some important work. Maybe you’ve caught up on day’s events with your partner or family. Now imagine it’s 10.00 pm. You could, of course, spend another hour or two in front your TV, laptop or iPad. Or you could just go to bed. If you tend to be a bit short on sleep, the latter option is likely to be your best bet.

14 Responses to Lack of sleep makes us hungrier

  1. andrea 25 March 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    My father-in-law, an old cowboy, has long maintained that sleep and food are interchangeable.

  2. Penny Vinden 25 March 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    You need to have someone (better?) proofing your work – ghrelin increases appetite, does it not? Not suppresses, as you have said.

  3. andrea 25 March 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    My father-in-law, an old cowboy, has long maintained that food and sleep are interchangeable.

  4. Tony D 25 March 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    Yes ghrelin increases appetite, produced mainly by stomach, also pancreas and hypothalamus; levels increase before meals, decrease afer.
    Conversely, leptin induces satiation, produced by fat cells.

    That looks to be what Dr Briffa said, and also comment 1 above, so both seem proof read correctly…

    Interestingly, ghrelin levels have been found increased by some bariatric procedures.

  5. Andrea Nakayama 25 March 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    I love that attention is being paid to the physiological consequences of lack of sleep on health. TV is a huge culprit. Not only does it keep us up extra hours, but the content stimulates our adrenals, hindering the quality of sleep. Right when that cortisol should be coming down its spiked up by heart-pounding news or drama.

  6. maria xerri 25 March 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    it s very true unfortunately i suffer from insomnia and it s horrible when you can t sleep so i end up running around in the middle of the night looking for something to eat and most of the time i end up eating whatever i find in the kitchen cupboard……….. it s very uncomfortable i wish i can have a long night sleep

  7. Michael 25 March 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    Maria, I don’t know your age but if you are 50ish+ then melatonin could be the answer.
    If you are under 50 then just roll with it because the condition will improve (I’m generalising here). I fought insomnia for most of my working life but steered clear of sleeping pills as they ruined my mother’s life. Then I discovered melatonin, but I don’t think that you can buy them in the UK so would have to be online and from overseas.

  8. Meren 25 March 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    I wish it were as simple as giving up TV. As a (widowed) single parent working full time I am not sitting around watching TV instead of going to bed!

  9. Feona 26 March 2011 at 10:08 am #

    I find I fall asleep earlier as I get older, but then I wake earlier too. My main problem is getting a good number of hours of unbroken sleep. I average 6-7 hours a night, but I usually wake up every couple of hours for some reason. How do you get over that problem and does it matter?

  10. audrey wickham 26 March 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    I am not sure! I have a friend who is an insomniac and is very thin. My father could sleep at any time of the day or night without any trouble put an inch on his waist towards the end of his life and was also very thin. He also could eat for two.

    Perhaps we are too different from each other to generalise.

  11. hilda glickman 26 March 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    Is there anyone out there who can give good advice on sleep. Mine has deteriorated badly. Thanks

  12. Melanie Flower 26 March 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    Physiological parameters aside, I think this shows that sleep is an important part of our self-care. And when self-care is lacking, over-eating is a common outcome; many people use food to compensate for the lack of something nurturing or nourishing in their lives.

  13. Nicolette Lawson 26 March 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    Have some Hypnotherapy – it’s a wonderful way of developing better sleeping habits and better quality deep sleep – and learning better eating habits too!!

  14. Rebecca 29 March 2011 at 2:47 am #

    I feel that when i don’t get enough sleep for whatever reason, i tend to eat/drink more in an effort to keep me awake, not sure if that is controlled by hormones or just me trying to find a solution to get through the day.

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