Most of us accept that eating well and exercising are the two main components of maintaining a healthy weight. But here’s another piece of the equation you may not have considered: sleep.
Yup, sleep does more for your body than helping you feel refreshed and ready to face the day. Sleep dramatically alters the way your body responds to food.
Read on to discover how healthy sleep habits can affect things like your appetite, the calories you consume in a day, and the types of food you reach for.
What Happens Inside Your Body When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep.
To understand how sleep is linked to diet, it helps to first understand the physiological changes that your body goes through when it’s fatigued. Here are just a few consequences of a sleepy brain and body.
Your Brain’s Reward Centers Are Heightened
When you’re sleep-deprived, your brain’s reward centers, like the putamen, nucleus accumbens, and thalamus, rev up. Activity increases in these regions as they look for something that feels good. So while a midnight pint of ice cream may sound pretty good on a normal night, it may sound really good if you’re functioning on less-than-optimal sleep.
Your Brain’s Decision-Making Abilities Are Dulled
Foregoing your typical 7-9 hours of sleep may set your brain up to make bad decisions. A lack of sleep dulls activity in your brain’s frontal lobe, which plays an important role in decision making and impulse control. Impaired decision making and poor impulse control may not help you when you’re choosing between a salad and a cheeseburger for dinner.
Your Metabolism Is Altered
If you aren’t getting enough sleep, your metabolism reacts in all sorts of ways that might affect your diet and weight.
- Cortisol may spike, which signals to your body that it should conserve energy.
- Cells may become insulin resistant. This means more sugar may remain in your bloodstream and more insulin may be produced to compensate.
- Your body’s resting metabolic rate (RMR), the number of calories your body burns at rest, may decrease.
Altogether, these changes in metabolism may encourage your body to hang on to fat and burn fewer calories as fuel.
How Do These Changes Affect Your Dietary Choices And Weight?
You May Be More Likely To Reach For Junk Food
Knowing what we know about sleep deprivation and impulse control, this one should come as no surprise. Studies show that a lack of sleep makes it more likely that you’ll make poor food choices. On top of that, high-calorie foods will feel even more rewarding when you’re fatigued, which may encourage you to make poor choices.
You May Find Yourself Eating In The Late Hours of The Night
If you’re up in the middle of the night scrolling through Instagram, watching TV, or just staring at the ceiling, you may be more likely to reach for a snack. Unhealthy snacking at night can lead to obesity, diabetes, and weight gain.
Inadequate Sleep May Increase Your Appetite
Many studies have found a link between sleep deprivation and increased appetite. This is likely due to the connection between sleep and the “hunger hormones” ghrelin and leptin.
Ghrelin is the hormone that signals to your brain when you’re hungry. Levels are typically high before you eat and low after you eat. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body makes more ghrelin, which leads you to feel hungry.
Leptin is a hormone that suppresses hunger and tells your brain that you are full. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces less leptin, which can leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied.
You May Consume More Calories
Studies show that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to consume more calories in a day. The increase in calories may be due to increased appetite, poor food choices, or simply having more waking hours to snack. In fact, those additional calories are likely to be consumed as after dinner snacks in the hours where you may otherwise be sleeping.
You May Not Feel Like Exercising
Think back to the last time you got a truly awful night of sleep. Did you wake up the next day feeling energized and ready to hit the gym? Probably not. Studies show that lack of sleep may decrease the amount and intensity of physical activity the next day.
What does this have to do with your diet? Well, exercise and diet are linked in many ways. Several studies have pointed out that physical activity may lead to a decreased desire for fattening foods. So if a loss of sleep is making you cut out the gym, it may also cut your willpower to stick to your diet.
What to Do If a Late Night Craving Hits
If you find yourself in a pattern of poor sleep and unhealthy eating, you may wonder how to stop the cycle. In the long term, you’ll definitely want to improve your sleep. But what do you do in the moment when cravings hit?
- Identify the cause of the craving – are you bored, emotional, or truly hungry? This can help you deal with the root of the problem.
- Pinpoint your triggers – this can help you break the cycle.
- Create a routine. Plan healthy, proteinrich meals and spread them out so you know you’re eating enough throughout the day.
- Consider seeking out emotional support if you think this could be the root of the problem.
- Try relaxation techniques like meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, or stretching.
- Don’t keep junk food in the house. If it’s not there, it’s harder to mindlessly reach for it.
Your Long-Term Strategy:
How to Get Back on Track After a Stretch of Sleepless Nights
If you’ve had a string of sleepless nights, all is not lost. By re-establishing healthy sleep habits, you can help your body fight junk food cravings and maintain a healthy weight. Here are some tips and tricks for getting back on track:
- Seek out more bright light or daylight during the day. This can ensure a healthy circadian rhythm, which can make you feel alert during the day and sleepy at night.
- At night, turn down the lights and be aware of blue light exposure, which is emitted from smartphones and laptops. This type of exposure reduces melatonin, the hormone that helps you relax and sleep.
- Try not to consume caffeine at least 6 hours before you plan to sleep. It can affect your sleep quality.
- Try to establish a consistent sleep and wake schedule that your body can get used to. This may involve setting an alarm in the morning or putting yourself to sleep before you feel ready. Make adjustments slowly.
- Consider cutting out alcohol, which can disrupt sleep patterns and alter melatonin levels.
- Create a cozy sleep environment by controlling noise, temperature, and external light.
- Avoid eating too late in the day; it can mess with your melatonin and sleep quality.
- Create a sleep ritual that includes relaxation techniques such as meditation, a warm bath, or quiet reading.
Small Changes, Big Results
The systems of the body are connected in seemingly endless ways. When you make healthy changes in one area, like improving your sleep, you may notice a domino effect that improves your health in other areas, too. When you make these adjustments, start small and be easy on yourself. Remember that it’s always a good idea to consult your doctor when you’re considering sleep, diet, exercise, or lifestyle changes.
Rand McClain, D.O. is a leading mind in regenerative and sports medicine using nutrition, progressive therapies and supplements to optimize the body and improve quality of life. He is chief medical officer of LCR Health, a health optimization supplement line, and practices medicine at his clinic in Santa Monica. His therapies — “based on science and proven in practice” — include: cryotherapy, stem cell therapies, and more.