If you are getting too little sleep, you might be activating the same chemical pathways in your brain that could lead to heightened enjoyment of junk food that has been associated with marijuana, known as "the munchies," according to a study.
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Researchers found that not getting enough sleep at night was followed by extended peaks the next day, these peaks signaled the chemicals that regulate hunger and pleasure. This may be a reason that sleep deprivation is linked to weight gain.
“Our current study adds to that growing literature and suggests that along with changes in leptin and ghrelin, alterations in endocannabinoids — all changing in the direction to favor food intake — may be mechanisms by which sleep restriction promotes overeating,” said lead author Erin Hanlon, a research associate in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the University of Chicago.
“And, on a larger scale, evidence from both laboratory and epidemiologic studies have consistently associated insufficient sleep or short sleep with increased risk of obesity,” Hanlon said.
The study looked at 14 healthy young adults between the ages of 18 and 30, who got four nights of good sleep (8.5 hours) and then four nights where they only slept for 4.5 hours. These two tests were places in a sleep lab and separated in time by a month.
While awake, participants were kept in a private room and remained sedentary. They have three identical meals at 9 AM, 2 PM, and 7PM.
On the first three days of the study, calorie intake was controlled and on the fourth, participants could eat whatever they wanted of their own personal choice.
During that time, their calorie intake and blood samples were analyzed. They also answered questionnaires about their hunger, appetite, mood, and energy level during the 24-hour period, 25 minutes before each meal and 1.5 hours after.
When they were sleep deprived, the participants had a higher level of endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), a chemical that encourages the intake of junk foods, particularly in the afternoon.
They also reported higher hunger scores.
“These are the first results showing that sleep restriction influences the endocannabinoid system in humans,” said Frank Scheer of the Medical Chronobiology Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who wrote a commentary alongside the new study. “This opens up a new insight into systems involved in energy balance and food reward,” he told Reuters Health by email.
“Previous studies had shown that experimental sleep loss causes an increase in ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin and a decrease in ‘satiety hormone’ leptin,” Scheer said. “The increase in the peak in endocannabinoids following sleep restriction provides an additional mechanism that could help explain an increase in hunger.”
Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
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“With decreasing amounts of sleep, the metabolic effects appear to become progressively stronger,” Scheer said.