Why do we eat more when tired?



Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


13 August 2019

Why does tiredness make you eat more?

From stress to an uncomfortable sleeping environment, there are a number of things that can lead to tiredness and low energy. Should you experience any of these issues, you may find yourself eating more than normal as tiredness due to lack of sleep can:

  • Disrupt hunger and satiety hormones
  • Make eating more enjoyable
  • Make decision making harder

In addition, we may eat more when tired because it:

  • Provides energy
  • Provides comfort

Below I take a look at these things in detail, whilst also offering a few tips on how to avoid overeating when tired.

Why does tiredness due to lack of sleep cause hunger?

According to research, there are several reasons why we feel more hunger, particularly when tired due to lack of sleep. We tend to eat more than usual or eat the wrong things when tired because:

1. It disrupts hunger and satiety hormones

Ghrelin is produced by the stomach, small intestine, pancreas and brain. It is known as a "hunger hormone" because it stimulates appetite.1 The hormone leptin, on the other hand, causes feelings of fullness. It is produced by the small intestine and adipose cells.

Research shows that even a little sleep deprivation can result in changes to these hormones.2 At this time, more ghrelin and less leptin may be produced and, as a result, they become less effective in their respective roles.3

The result of this is an increase in appetite and cravings (even when we're not hungry), followed by a rise in food intake.4 When tired, the body particularly craves sugar or salt as these provide a quick hit of energy.

2. Eating becomes more enjoyable

Research also suggests that we get more pleasure out of eating when we're tired, hence it can cause us to eat more.5

A 2016 study published in the SLEEP Journal found that when participants were sleep deprived, they put higher scores for hunger and noted a stronger desire to eat.6 When they were given snacks, they ate double the amount of fat as when they had slept for 8 hours a night.

This effect is linked to the endocannabinoid system (ECS) which contributes to various bodily functions including fertility, memory, mood and appetite. Amongst the participants, researchers found that endocannabinoid levels increased, and then remained elevated throughout the day - levels are usually low at night and then increase to reach a peak in the afternoon.

By altering endocannabinoid levels, sleep deprivation therefore has the ability to change the function of the ECS. It can become overwhelmed, for example, and, in turn, may increase signals that boost the pleasure and satisfaction gained from food. With the ECS making food more enjoyable, we may be inclined to eat more of it, and to make poorer food as well – your favourite cake or dinner will only become more delicious!

3. Decision making becomes harder

Research shows that sleep deprivation can significantly decrease activity in the regions of the brain that are associated with making decisions (the cortical area of the frontal lobe).7

As our ability to make decisions become less effective when we're tired, this may explain further why people make poor dietary choices when tired and why they may eat more, even if they don't necessarily need it.

Tiredness can also make it more difficult to concentrate and so this too may cause us to increase the quantity of food we eat. When there are different options to choose from at snack or meal times, for example, we may be tempted to eat larger quantities, rather than having to choose one thing.

Other reasons we eat more when tired

It is not just lack of sleep that can make you tired, there are other causes of tiredness which can affect your appetite control and make you eat more when your energy is low. Common reasons for eating more when tired include:

To get energy

If you're feeling a little sleepy then, during the day, your automatic reaction may be to reach for snacks that will help boost your energy levels.

The sugary foods that we often crave when energy levels are low can cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly. In this way they provide a quick and effective energy boost. The problem is, however, that this is quickly followed by a rapid drop in blood sugar levels which can lead to tiredness. We may therefore be tempted to eat more sugary foods in an attempt to sustain the initial rise in energy levels that these provide.

Turning to the likes of coffee to beat the afternoon slump has the added problem that caffeine can linger in the system for hours after you've taken it. This means that it has the potential to disrupt your sleep when you head to bed so it's a bit of a vicious cycle!

There are several healthier options you can drink instead of coffee to help revitalise your energy levels without the troublesome side effects. In my article, '6 healthy energy-boosting drinks, I take a look alternative drinks to boost your energy that aren't high in caffeine.

Food provides comfort

If you regularly experience tiredness and low energy levels then stress and anxiety may then become an issue. Food can provide a means of coping with this and so some people may be inclined to eat larger portions and to snack at more regular intervals.

If you are looking for comfort through food, it's very likely you'll turn to a big bowl of pasta, ice-cream or cake, rather than something healthy like a large tub of broccoli! Research has found, for example, that sleep deprived people are more likely to choose protein and fat.8

Processed foods like ice cream and cake offer less nutritionally than fresh foods. This can further contribute to tiredness as it means we are not getting as many minerals and nutrients that help to maintain energy levels such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin D and potassium.

How to avoid overeating when tired

There are lots of simple things you can do to help avoid overeating when you are tired. You could:

Plan your meals

At the start of the week set aside some time to sit down with a cook book or two and plan your meals for the week ahead – just make sure you're not feeling tired when you do it!

Not only will this save you time and money (you'll be able to get everything all at once rather than having to make several trips to the supermarket), it'll also reduce the likelihood of you making poor food choices later in the week when you're tired or low in energy.

Boost your energy with Balance Drink

If you're feeling tired, our Balance Mineral Drink can provide the energy boost your body may be craving at this time.

The combination of nutrients and minerals, including vitamin D, potassium and magnesium, help to raise energy levels naturally. The drink, therefore, provides a good alternative to teas, coffee and other sugary foods.

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Packed full of fatigue-fighting electrolytes and vitamins, including calcium, vitamin D and magnesium, this strawberry-flavoured drink is ideal for helping to boost your energy.

You can drink it whenever you feel most tired, such as in the morning or when your energy slumps in the afternoon. It also makes a good post-workout drink.

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Read what other people are saying about Balance Mineral Drink.

Choose natural sugars

When you're energy levels are low and you're craving a sweet treat try to opt for natural sugars, such as those in fresh and dried fruit rather than the likes of chocolate or sweets.

You could try mixing some fresh fruit into one of our delicious smoothies for an alternative to tea or coffee. If you're after something different you could mix up our tasty carrot and mango smoothie!

Opt for filling foods

If you're tired make sure you have a filling, healthy breakfast and regular meals to stem the increasing desire for food – don't skip any just because you're busy! You can see our recipe hub for inspiration but for now I've listed some of my favourite filling foods below.

My article, 'What are the best foods to fight fatigue' also includes simple tips for a healthier diet that will give you more energy and reduce tiredness.

Drink plenty water

Hunger can often be a sign of dehydration so, before you go reaching for your next snack, try having a big glass of water. You should aim for 1.5 to 2 litres of plain, still water a day.

Dehydration can also contribute to low energy levels so this is another reason so keep yourself hydrated throughout the day – it may just address your energy slump!

How to sleep better and help control your eating

According to our Sleep Advisor Marianna "the average person needs around seven and a half hours of sleep a night, however, research tells us that over 25% of people in the UK feel that they sleep badly and look for more sleep or better quality sleep".9

Marianna offers lots of advice on how to help improve sleep over on her sleep hub. For now though, I've picked out a few of her top tips and listed them below. By putting these in place, hopefully you'll be able to get a better night's rest and control how much you're eating at the same time.

Exercise – this tires the body out thus helping sleep come that little bit sooner. We should aim to do around 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week – you can take a look at our Get Active hub for inspiration on how to do a little more.

Turn off technology – technology creates a blue light that can make it difficult to nod off. Avoiding the likes of smart phones and laptops is therefore called upon before bed.

Try a herbal remedya gentle herbal remedy such as Dormeasan can encourage a better night's sleep. This is made from a combination of Valerian and Hops which relaxes the nervous system.

Relax – a warming bath or 30 minutes of reading at the end of the day will help to relax the body and mind thus aiding sleep.

References

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4049314/
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2084401/
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535701/
4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3763921/
5. https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/39/3/653/2454026
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3763921/
7. https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms3259
8. https://www.nature.com/articles/ejcn2016201
9. https://www.sleepcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/The-Great-British-Bedtime-Report.pdf

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