Why You Snack When You’re Sleepy

There’s been a lot of research illustrating the correlation between lack of sleep and weight gain. Many studies have shown that a lack of sleep can disrupt circadian rhythms and alter satiety and hunger hormones. Health experts have noted that individuals suffering from chronic sleep deprivation have experienced significant changes in their metabolism, leading to obesity and myriad of other health issues.

According to NPR,  a recent study has found evidence that getting less than five hours of sleep per night can lead to an increase of the lipid endocannabinoid. This lipid resides in the bloodstream, and might increase “the hedonic aspect of food intake.” In other words, when an individual experiences sleep deprivation, he or she is more likely to eat for pleasure, rather than satiation.

The latest study was conducted by Erin Hanlon, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Her goal was to learn how the endocannabinod system linked to short sleep and weight gain. As part of their research, Hanlon and her colleagues collected 14 young adults who typically got about eight hours of sleep per night.

ScienceLife describes the study:

The researchers monitored the subjects’ hunger and eating habits in two situations: one four-day stay in the University’s Clinical Research Center during which they spent 8.5 hours in bed each night (averaging 7.5 hours of sleep), and another four-day stay when they spent only 4.5 hours in bed (4.2 hours asleep).he participants ate identical meals three times a day, at 9 a.m., 2 p.m., and 7 p.m. Researchers measured levels of the hormone ghrelin, which boosts appetite, and leptin, which signals fullness, in their blood.

The difference in this study from those in the past was Hanlon’s measurement of endocannabinoids in the participants’ blood levels. After eight hours of sleep, the 2-AG (endocannabinoid) levels were low in the morning, with a peak before and after lunchtime. With restricted sleep, the 2-AG levels rose “about 33 percent higher than those seen after normal sleep.” They also remained elevated until about 9 p.m., whereas eight hours of sleep led to low evening 2-AG levels.

When the study subjects were interviewed, they reported a noticeable increase in their hunger levels after restricted sleep.

ScienceLife continues:

After the fourth night of restricted sleep, subjects were offered an array of snack foods. Despite having eaten a large meal less than two hours before being offered snacks, subjects in the restricted sleep phase of the study had trouble limiting their snack consumption. They chose foods that provided 50 percent more calories, including twice the amount of fat, as when they were completing the normal sleep phase.

Many of us might experience this first hand. On days we feel fatigued, we’re more likely to crave our favorite indulgences, such as pizza, breakfast sandwiches, sweets, or popcorn.

When an individual experiences chronic sleep deprivation and starts reaching for a bag of Doritos throughout the day, it all starts to add up. Hanlon reports that when participants were sleep deprived, they ate about 400 more calories from snacks.

There’s still much to be discovered in the realm of sleep deprivation and overeating, but for now, this is another great reason to get that extra dose of shut eye.


Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel.  She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com and through Instagram.


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