Sleep and appetite regulation

Ever find yourself constantly hungry and craving junk food after a night (or multiple) of bad sleep?

I for one have experienced these on multiple occasions while conducting sleep research studies, where I would spend the night awake to make sure the participants were sleeping soundly in their laboratory beds. By the time I would head home the following morning, I would crave all kinds of junk food. Much to my satisfaction there was a local pastry shop on the trail home that was filled with various Danish delicacies. Needless to say, I was willing to try them all!

Sleep, or lack-thereof, is suggested to interfere with two hormones that regulate our appetite: leptin and ghrelin.

Leptin is a hormone released by our adipocytes (fat cells) in response to our energy and caloric needs. High levels of leptin indicate satiety and adequate calorie intake for energy demands. A drop in our leptin levels indicate to the brain that our body is in need of energy and, consequently, food.

Ghrelin, on the other hand, is a peptide secreted from the stomach and is associated with hunger and regulating energy balance. Increase in ghrelin results in an increase in perceived hunger. When we eat a meal, our ghrelin levels go down and gradually increase until the next meal. 

Studies have shown that a night of sleep loss modulates the presence of our hunger hormones by decreasing leptin levels and increasing ghrelin secretion. As a result, there is a proportional increase to our appetite the following day. This increase in appetite is greatest for carbohydrate rich foods, including sweets, salty foods and starchy foods.

Recent studies have shown that a single night of short sleep increases our preference for the taste of sweetness. These results suggest that, in addition to homeostatic changes in our hunger hormones, lack of sleep also seems to play on the pleasure centers of the brain, enhancing the pleasure of savoury foods. Thus,  following a night of shortened sleep we may be more tempted to grab a slice of pizza, or two, or three, with a side of cake and cookies.

A night here and there of bad sleep won’t necessarily result in weight gain, especially if pairing with an overall good diet and an active lifestyle. However, shortened sleep can result in increase intake of calories if not careful. This can have a cumulative effect overtime and can lead to additional weight over the course of the year.

Although the quantity and quality of our sleep is not always in our control, it is important to be aware of the effects of poor sleep on our appetite and desire for savory foods. As an additional bonus, focusing on improving our sleep can also help in mediating our weight as well as our hunger throughout the day.

Selected References

  • Taheri, S., Lin, L., Austin, D., Young, T., & Mignot, E. (2004). Short Sleep Duration is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index. PLoS Medicine, 1:3, 210-217.
  • Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Penev, P., Van Cauter, E. (2004). Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite. Annals in Internal Medicine, 141:11, 846-850.
  • Van Cauter, E., Spiegel, K., Tasali, E. & Leproult, R. (2008). Metabolic Consequences of Sleep and Sleep Loss. Sleep Medicine, 9(0-1); S23-S28.
  • Szczygiel, E. J., Cho, S., & Tucker, R. M. (2018). Characterization of the Relationships Between Sleep Duration, Quality, Architecture, and Chemosensory Function in Nonobese Females. Chemical senses43(4), 223-228.
  • Smith, S. L., Ludy, M. J., & Tucker, R. M. (2016). Changes in taste preference and steps taken after sleep curtailment. Physiology & behavior163, 228-233.