We often hear that diet and exercise are the keys to weight management. While you may understand the connection between sleep and exercise, did you know that sleep plays an important part in how your body senses hunger, and therefore getting more sleep can help support weight management?
There are two characters in your hunger story: ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is your body’s hunger hormone, which signals to your body to eat more. Leptin is your satiety hormone, which lets your brain know when you’re full so you stop eating.
On a typical day, ghrelin levels are at their highest before eating and at their lowest about an hour after you’ve finished a meal. Your leptin levels fluctuate depending on your body.
Leptin is produced by your body in proportion to your fat mass. In an average person, leptin levels rise as fat increases to send your brain the message that there’s enough energy stored that food isn’t a priority. If your fat levels decrease, leptin will go down again to encourage you to eat. In cases of obesity, the brain isn’t sensitive enough to leptin signals to recognize how much fat is already stored.
Sounds simple, right? Well, sleep deprivation throws a wrench into the system—completely disrupting this rhythm.
When you’re sleep deprived:
- Your body defaults to hunger: Your leptin levels decrease, while your ghrelin kicks into overdrive, meaning you’re both sleep deprived and hungry.
- You gorge the next day: Evidence shows that people who are sleep deprived scarf down an extra 500+ calories the day after a poor night’s sleep.
- You crave junk food: Sleepless nights are more likely to leave you snacking more frequently on low quality food (pizza, cookies, and ice cream instead of protein, nuts, and leafy greens).
- Your energy system malfunctions: Insulin enables cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream for energy. Poor sleep actually makes your cells resistant to receiving these vital insulin signals.
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“You are what you eat” applies—even while you’re sleeping.
If you’re looking to build a relationship with food that promotes sleep, try playing with your meal timing or periods of fasting. Keep an eye out for patterns on nights where your heart rate stays elevated for signs that your metabolism is impacting your sleep.
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- Brondel, Laurent, Michael A. Romer, Pauline M. Nougues, Peio Touyarou, and Damien Davenne. “Acute partial sleep deprivation increases food intake in healthy men.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 91, no. 6 (2010): 1550-1559. (link)
- Greer, Stephanie M., Andrea N. Goldstein, and Matthew P. Walker. “The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain.” Nature communications 4, no. 1 (2013): 1-7. (link)
- Donga, Esther, Marieke van Dijk, J. Gert van Dijk, Nienke R. Biermasz, Gert-Jan Lammers, Klaas W. van Kralingen, Eleonara PM Corssmit, and Johannes A. Romijn. “A single night of partial sleep deprivation induces insulin resistance in multiple metabolic pathways in healthy subjects.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 95, no. 6 (2010): 2963-2968. (link)