Over the years sleep deprivation has been associated with a surprising array of effects, starting from a lowered intellectual capacity, to a reduced sex drive and a number of serious health problems, such as heart failure, high blood pressure and even diabetes.
This new study puts another item on the list of daunting consequences, by correlating insufficient sleep with the craving of unnecessary food, commonly known as “the munchies.”
A group of researchers from the University of Chicago recently published a paper in the journal Sleep, detailing the connection between sleep deprivation and people’s eating habits.
The study, which was partially funded by the Department of Defense, shows that lack of sleep can determine powerful changes in a person’s eating patterns, that are similar to the “marijuana munchies.”
Researcher Erin Hanlon, one of the study’s authors, claims that this effect actually enhances one’s craving for sweet, salty and other types of foods which are considered unhealthy.
Hanlon and her colleagues conducted an experiment on 14 healthy young men and women, with extremely controlled eating habits. The researchers performed two rounds of tests on them, each one lasting four days, all the while examining their sleeping and eating habits.
During the first round of testing, the subjects slept an average of 7.5 hours, while the second time they were restricted to only 4.2 hours. Each time the participants were offered identical meals: one at 9 a.m., another at 2 p.m. and the other at 7 p.m.
The scientists then performed several blood tests and discovered an interesting phenomenon. A reduced amount of sleep seemed to alter the daily rhythm of aendocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol or 2-AG, which is a chemical found in the central nervous system.
It affects several areas, such as motor learning, pain and even appetite and is the main target of marijuana.
When the participants were asked how hungry they felt after each round of testing, they reported feeling hungrier when they got less sleep, than when they had a normal amount of rest.
According to Hanlon, all subjects expressed a stronger desire to eat and thought they could consume more.
The study showed that when volunteers slept a normal amount of hours, the levels of 2-AG were lower overnight, then began increasing in the morning and then peaked at about 12.30 p.m.
However, when they were sleep deprived, these levels rose significantly, peaking at 2.30 p.m., and remaining high throughout the evening.
Frank Scheer is an Associate Professor at Harvard University’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and he wrote a commentary to accompany the researchers’ paper. In it, he points out that although the study was conducted on a small number of people, it offers an incredible insight into how our brains and bodies can trigger hunger when we get an insufficient amount of sleep.
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