Can sleep deprivation make you hungry?
Have you ever struggled through your morning routine and found your stomach grumbling more frequently? Or noticed that you seem to crave sugary, carbohydrate-rich treats such as cakes, doughnuts or crisps?
Well, it turns out these cravings might not be your stomach just begging for some food. A lot of evidence has emerged that supports the idea of there being a direct correlation between your sleep patterns and your eating habits. Research has found that a lack of sleep alters the brain's reward systems and induces cravings for unhealthy foods.1 Also, The National Sleep Foundation suggests that those who don't get enough sleep consume up to 300 extra calories a day and twice as much fat as someone who is managing to get the recommended 8 hours! 2
But why is this the case and how does sleep deprivation really affect your appetite? In order to examine this complicated relationship further, I'm going to have a look at:
- How lack of sleep affects hormone production
- The vicious cycle of not sleeping and overeating
How does a lack of sleep affect your hormones?
Sleep allows your body to recover and recuperate, as well as allowing your hormones to rebalance their levels in relation to each other.
Some hormones really do matter when it comes to your appetite, including ghrelin, insulin, cortisol and leptin. These four hormones help to rouse and appease your appetite and regulate your metabolism.
Ghrelin and leptin, in particular, play an important role in respectively controlling and appeasing your appetite. Ghrelin stimulates appetite, whilst leptin tells your brain that you've eaten enough. However, when you are sleep deprived these hormones end up out of balance. Ghrelin levels increase whilst leptin decreases, ultimately leading to an increase in hunger, which could cause overeating.
Evidence is emerging to suggest that sleep deprivation could be linked to pre-diabetic symptoms. According to The National Sleep Foundation, if you are sleep deprived your body releases less insulin after you eat.3 At the same time, your body secretes more stress hormones (such as cortisol), which help you stay awake but make it more difficult for insulin to work effectively. This leads to excessive amounts of glucose in the bloodstream, which could increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, whilst also messing up your sleep patterns and affecting your appetite, as explained above.
The vicious cycle of not sleeping and overeating
So, we've established the link between not sleeping and overeating but unfortunately, that's only the start of your problems. Not only can a lack of sleep cause you to overeat, overeating itself can cause you to experience a variety of sleep problems, forming a vicious circle from which it can be hard to escape.
For example, if you are overeating during the day, the chances are you will be snacking on sugary foods and carbohydrates. These types of foods are usually processed and high in refined sugars, which can upset your nervous system and make it difficult to relax, especially if you've been munching away close to your bed time.
Overeating at night also plays a role in the vicious cycle of not sleeping and overeating. If you are overeating at night you may think that this will make you feel less hungry the next day, however, this is not the case!
According to research, eating late at night can have an impact on your blood glucose levels.4 If your blood glucose levels rise during the night, your pancreas will release more insulin leading to a "sugar crash". This sudden drop in your blood glucose levels can stimulate the appetite centres in your brain, causing you to feel hungrier when you wake up. This feeds into the vicious circle of overeating and not sleeping. Vacillating blood sugar levels also increase the chances of you waking up through the night, reducing the quality and quantity of the sleep you are getting.
What can I do to break the cycle?
Breaking the sleeping and overeating cycle can be difficult and there are a few aspects of your diet and lifestyle that you may have to question.
This is a big hurdle to overcome, especially if you have to fight against cravings throughout the day. However, if you are sleep deprived, reaching for a bar of chocolate is just a temporary fix and essentially you are just fuelling the cycle. Try to answer your body's food cravings by instead choosing healthier alternatives. If your body is craving chocolate or sugar, try to satisfy it by making some homemade energy balls like our yummy Salted Caramel Bliss Balls!
If you really crave carbohydrates, choose complex forms such as brown rice, wholemeal bread or pulses. Stock up on dried fruit nibbles, as dried fruit is rich in magnesium and the B vitamins, which are supportive for your nervous system. Eat plenty of veg, especially green leafy veg such as kale, which can help your brain to produce melatonin, the sleep hormone! Snacking on a moderate amount of cashew nuts will provide you with more tryptophan, which can aid sleep.
Stress can have a huge impact on your sleep patterns so it's important that you try to reduce your stress levels whenever possible. Take a break from your electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime and instead set aside some time to read a book or indulge in a nice hot bath. For more information have a look at my blog "4 ways too much screen time affects your energy".
If you find that your mind is still buzzing, you could try out some meditation and exercises. These are both beneficial in reducing stress and can also help you to get a good night's sleep. Help your body and mind unwind after a stressful day by practising Beditation. To get started, dim the lights and find a comfortable place where you won't be disturbed and sit or lie down. Close your eyes for a count of 3, exhale for a count of 4 and then repeat this three times. As you do this, try to focus on your breathing and your body. When you feel calm, climb into bed and repeat the breathing exercises there if necessary
Originally written on 2nd August 2017, updated on 30th January 2020.