If you wake up in the mornings craving donuts or a big bowl of Lucky Charms, it’s not just because you have a sweet tooth. You may not be getting enough sleep.
Research studies have shown that too little sleep can change your appetite, leading toward more desire for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods. This in turn can lead to a host of medical problems, from weight gain to increased risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The problem isn’t confined to a few late nights on the weekend either. As many as one third of American adults report sleeping less than seven hours a night regularly, and it’s estimated that average sleep duration has decreased by 1.5 to two hours per night over the past half-century.
But even in a busy world with ever-increasing work loads, family life and school obligations, not to mention constant, keep-you-awake distractions of TV, smartphones and the internet, this trend toward less sleep—and the health problems that come with it—isn’t irreversible.
In a recent study published in the journal Appetite, University of Chicago Medicine sleep researchers were able to teach young adults with a track record of poor bedtime habits how to get an additional 1.6 hours a night in a real-world setting. At the end of a 2-week intervention, this additional sleep was associated with a 14 percent decrease in overall appetite, and a 62 percent decrease in cravings for sweet and salty junk foods. Sorry, bacon-glazed donuts.
“Most people think that because we have other responsibilities, we don’t have time to sleep,” said Esra Tasali, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago Medicine and lead author on the study. “But we were able to use an individualized sleep hygiene intervention and extend sleep by 1.6 hours on average for two weeks. I think it’s amazing how sleep can be extended in the field. This should open up future research on healthier sleep interventions and looking at the metabolic and other health outcomes.”The study included 10 overweight young adults who reported sleeping less than 6.5 hours a night. During the first week, they continued their usual sleeping habits at home while continuously wearing a wrist activity monitor to objectively assess their sleep-wake habits. Participants pressed a button when they went to bed each night and again when they woke up in the morning,
After the first week, the researchers interviewed participants about their sleep habits, home environments and daily routines. They were then given individualized instructions to follow at home to extend their daily bedtimes for the next two weeks, such as not watching TV or actively using the internet right before bed (don’t worry e-book readers, that’s okay as long as you dim the screen).
By the end of the intervention, participants averaged 1.6 hours more sleep per night than normal. They reported feeling less sleepy and more energetic in the morning too.
Tasali said that when we are sleep deprived, we incur a metabolic cost for being awake. We turn to food to compensate for this increased energy expenditure, but in an era of widely available, palatable foods, we tend to overeat and make unhealthy choices. Getting more sleep can curb this additional craving though. In this study, the additional sleep resulted in a 14 percent decrease in overall appetite, and 62 percent decrease in desire for sweet and salty foods.
Tasali and her team have received an NIH grant to continue their work, looking specifically at the effects of sleep extension on the risk for obesity and diabetes. She thinks that if we can show that getting additional sleep in real world setting has metabolic benefits, then changing sleep habits can become part of the standard arsenal for fighting obesity.
“Sleep extension is feasible in real life settings despite people’s busy schedules,” she said. “It could be utilized as an additive strategy in our battle with this obesity epidemic, and future trials should be done to add sleep extension as a behavioral strategy in addition to diet and exercise.”
Tasali E., Chapotot F., Wroblewski K. & Schoeller D. (2014). The effects of extended bedtimes on sleep duration and food desire in overweight young adults: A home-based intervention., Appetite, PMID: 24858836