Lack of sleep has for decades been viewed as detrimental to a person’s overall health, but a new small study reveals it could be a catalyst to obesity.
University of Chicago researchers found slacking on sleep caused bad food choices, overnight overeating and eventually weight gain.
The study, published on February 29 in the journal SLEEP, determined that when people failed to sleep, it released a chemical signal increasing their desire to eat high fat and sodium-filled foods, similar to the sensation that occurs when using marijuana.
“We found that sleep restriction boosts a signal that may increase the hedonic aspect of food intake, the pleasure and satisfaction gained from eating,” said Erin Hanlon, a research associate in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the University of Chicago, in a study news release. “Sleep restriction seems to augment the endocannabinoid system, the same system targeted by the active ingredient of marijuana, to enhance the desire for food intake.”
The small study took 14 healthy men and women in their 20s and divided them into two groups. The participants ate identical meals three times a day, at 9:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. Their hunger habits were monitored during one four-day stay in the University’s Clinical Research Center, during which one group slept eight-and-a-half hours and another slept four-and-a half hours each night.
Those who were sleep deprived had a higher level of endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol, the chemical signal that induces the munchies of cookies, candy and chips. That occurred even though they had already eaten 90 percent of their daily calories just two hours before.
“It has long been known that poor sleeping habits often lead to poor eating habits,” says Dr. Naresh Upadhyay, a pulmonologist at Advocate Trinity Hospital in Chicago.
Lack of sleep has been linked to concentration and mental health issues. There are more than 85 sleep disorders recognized by the American Sleep Association affecting more than 70 million people in the United States. Most cases remain undiagnosed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about a third of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep a night and more than a third of adults in the United States are obese. A 2013 Gallup poll found that U.S. adults sleep an average of 6.8 hours per night.
“It’s not just the kinds of foods you eat, but also how much,” says Dr. Upadhyay. “The greater the quantity of food, the more tired you get.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, teens from 14 to 17 -years-old need eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. Those 18 to 64-years-old need seven to nine hours and adults 65 and older need seven to eight hours.