Disrupted sleep can increase 'hunger hormones' leading to unwanted weight gain, a new study suggests (1).
The review, published last month in the Journal of Psychology, examines the various ways in which sleep problems cause increased food intake.
Sleep and 'Hunger Hormones'
Our experience of hunger is controlled by two hormones - leptin and ghrelin.
Leptin is a hormone that tells our brain that we are feeling full, while ghrelin sends signals from our stomach to our brain to increase appetite.
Studies have found that a lack of sleep leads to an imbalance in leptin and ghrelin (2,3).
Any imbalance in these hormones can spell trouble for appetite and cravings. The result is that we are left feeling hungrier than usual. This type of imbalance also means that we are less likely to feel 'full' after a good meal and more likely to experience cravings for sugar-laden foods.
Sleep and Will-Power
The researchers pinpoint another mechanism that may link sleep and weight problems. "Disrupted sleep patterns may impact food intake of both adults and children via impairment of executive functions".
If you've ever blamed a lack of will-power for thwarted weight loss attempts, then it may be helpful to look at improving your sleep. It seems that sleep deprivation can impair the part of the brain that is responsible for 'executive control' and 'impulse modulation', and so can sabotage weight loss attempts by affecting healthy meal planning, impulse control and simple 'will power'. (4).
Sleep and Emotional Eating
A third factor highlighted in the review is the role that sleep plays on emotional regulation, scientifically known as the limbic system. A lack of sleep means we are more likely to see the 'glass half empty' - negative emotions are amplified and emotional challenges are more difficult to manage (5).
The result is comfort eating. We begin to reach for sugar-laden or stodgy foods - sweet and energy-dense foods to rebalance our levels of 'happy hormones' such as serotonin and endorphins.
"Sleep should be actively considered in efforts to modify dietary behaviour,", this new study concludes. In other words, if you are struggling with weight loss or sticking to a healthy eating programme, then addressing sleep problems is a good place to start.
Basic sleep hygiene is important. Try to go to bed and rise at the same times each day, and refrain from doing anything too stimulating - playing computer games, checking emails, heavy exercise - in the couple of hours before bed. Make sure that your bedroom is dark and kept at a comfortable temperature.
Magnesium, the 'relaxing mineral' has been found to relieve sleep problems. Taking 300mg magnesium before bed, or using a topical magnesium oil, can boost your levels in order to promote healthful sleep. Magnesium salts can also be added to bath water and will be absorbed through the skin.
L-theanine, a naturally occurring amino acid, plays a role in relaxation and has been to improve sleep quality in recent studies (6). L-theanine works by enhancing alpha-wave activity in the brain, resulting in a more relaxed state and reduced anxiety levels.
Valerian is a herbal supplement often used for promoting healthful sleep. Many individuals have found relief with herbal sleep formulas although more research needs to be done in this area.
Finally, tart cherry juice (such as CherryActive), has also performed well in initial placebo-controlled sleep studies, probably as a result of its anti-inflammatory properties and melatonin content. This type of cherry juice has been found to improve sleep parameters such as sleep quality, efficiency and total sleep time (7).
1. Alyssa Lundahl and Timothy D Nelson (2015) Sleep and food intake: A multisystem review of mechanisms in children and adults. Journal of Health Psychology, 20(6):794-805
2. Tatone F, Dubois L, Ramsay T, et al (2012) Sex differences in the association between sleep duration, diet and body mass index: A birth cohort study. Journal of Sleep Research 21(4): 448–460.
3.Burt J, Dube L, Thibault L, et al (2014) Sleep and eating in childhood: A potential behavioral mechanism underlying the relationship between poor sleep and obesity. Sleep Medicine Reviews 15(1): 71–75.
4. Beebe DW, Fallone G, Godiwala N, et al. (2008) Feasibility and behavioral effects of an at-home multi-night sleep restriction protocol for adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 49(9): 915–923.
5.Daniela T, Alessandro C, Giuseppe C, et al. (2010) Lack of sleep affects the evaluation of emotional stimuli. Brain Research Bulletin 82(1): 104–108
6. Lyon MR et al (2011) The effects of L-theanine (Suntheanine®) on objective sleep quality in boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Altern Med Rev. 2011 Dec;16(4):348-54.
7. Wilfred RP et al (2010) Effects of a Tart Cherry Juice Beverage on the Sleep of Older Adults with Insomnia: A Pilot Study. J Food Med. 13(3):579-583.