We talk a lot about the connection between sleep and weight. An overwhelming body of research has established the links between lack of sleep and weight gain. Large-scale studies show that a routine of sleeping too little makes us more likely to put on weight over time. Lack of sleep has been linked to both increased calorie consumption and to reduced energy expenditure—that means more calories in, and fewer calories out. Sleep deprivation is also associated with disruptions to hormones in the body that regulate appetite. In the past several decades, we’ve seen obesity rates skyrocket. At the same time, rates of sleep deprivation have also risen dramatically. Nearly a third of working adults are sleeping no more than 6 hours a night. As a society, we sleep significantly less—and we weigh a great deal more.
New research now offers some important insight into the underlying connection between lack of sleep and weight gain—specifically, how sleep deprivation can alter brain behavior in ways that make it more difficult to eat well and keep weight off.
Researchers at the University of California Berkeley examined how sleep affects brain functions that are related to food choices and desire. They found sleep deprivation led to important changes to activity in two very different areas of the brain, both of which help govern eating. The result? After a single night of sleep deprivation, participants’ brains responded with greater desire for unhealthy foods than when they were rested. At the same time, their sleep-deprived brains showed indications of diminished capacity to make reasoned, thoughtful decisions that could override the impulse to eat poorly.
Researchers studied 23 healthy adults under different sleep conditions. The group spent two nights in a sleep laboratory. On one night, they slept approximately 8 hours and woke to have a light breakfast. After a period of about a week, the participants returned to the laboratory for another overnight session. This time, instead of getting a full night’s sleep, participants were kept awake for the duration of the night. They were given snacks throughout the night to compensate for any additional calories they might expend by staying awake. After each night, participants were shown a series of images of a wide variety of foods, from healthy choices like fruits and vegetables to high-calorie foods like potato chips, pizza and dessert. They were asked to rate their desire for each food. As an incentive, researchers told participants they could have the food they rated the highest. While participants were viewing and rating food images, researchers observed their brain function using MRI technology. When they compared the well-rested sessions to the sleep-deprived sessions, they found significant differences in levels of desire for certain foods—and corresponding differences brain activity:
These results show that the impact of sleep on the brain is twofold: A single night of sleep deprivation makes fattening, high-calorie foods more attractive and at the same time interferes with the brain’s ability to override desire with rational decision making.
This isn’t the first evidence we’ve seen that lack of sleep interferes with normal brain behavior regarding appetite, desire, and decision-making about food. Researchers at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center and Columbia University in New York also used MRI to investigate the impact of sleep on the brain’s response to food. Twenty-five men and women were shown images of healthful and unhealthful foods after 5 nights of normal sleep and again after 5 nights of sleeping no more than 4 hours per night. Brain scans revealed a spike in activity in the reward center of the brain when participants viewed unhealthy foods after restricted sleep. No such similar spike occurred when the subjects viewed healthful foods, even after sleeping only 5 hours per night.
This latest study gives an even clearer picture of just how significant an impact sleep can have on the brain and how those neurological changes may ultimately contribute to weight gain. We know that sleep is an important tool in weight management. These results indicate that getting enough sleep can help prime your brain to help you win the battle against weight gain.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
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