Too little sleep may activate the same chemical pathways in the brain that are involved in heightened attraction to and enjoyment of junk food associated with marijuana use - also known as “the munchies” - according to a small study from the University of Chicago.
Researchers found that a night of restricted sleep was followed by extended peaks, later in the day, in natural signaling chemicals that regulate hunger and pleasure. That may be one reason sleep deprivation is linked to weight gain.
Too little sleep alters hormones that prompt eating
This study adds to growing literature and suggests that along with alternations in appetite hormones such as leptin and ghrelin, changes in endocannabinoids may also be the way in which sleep restriction promotes overeating.
Studies have consistently associated insufficient sleep or short sleep with increased risk of obesity.
The researchers studied 14 healthy young adults ranging in age from 18 to 30 years who got four nights of sufficient sleep, about eight and a half hours, then four nights of sleep restricted to 4.5 hours. The two sleep tests took place in a sleep lab and were separated by a month.
During waking hours, participants were housed in a private room and kept basically sedentary. They had three identical meals at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
In each test, calorie intake was controlled for the first three days and on the fourth day participants were allowed to eat as much or as little as they liked from a buffet tailored to individual preferences. The researchers monitored participants' calorie intake and analyzed blood samples.
Participants also answered questions about their hunger, appetite, energy level and mood during the 24-hour period of blood sampling, 25 minutes before each meal and one hour and 35 minutes afterward.
When sleep deprived, participants had higher levels of endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), a chemical signal that makes foods, particularly junk foods, pleasurable. This blood chemical is usually low overnight and rises steadily during the day, peaking in the afternoon.
But in the sleep-deprived phase, 2-AG remained elevated late in the evening and participants reported higher hunger scores.
The researchers said adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
Source: Sleep, online February 29, 2016.
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