Lack of sleep increases hunger for unhealthy and high-fat foods

Lack of sleep increases hunger for unhealthy and high-fat foods

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Increase through poor diet after lack of sleep?

When we have slept badly, we eat unhealthy foods more often. But why do we yearn for a night with sleep problems for high-calorie and high-fat foods and how can we prevent cravings for such foods?

A recent study by the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine has now analyzed why people are hungry for high-fat and high-calorie foods after a sleepless night. The results of the study were published in the English language journal "eLife".

What role did the sense of smell play?

The sense of smell is influenced by sleep deprivation. Deprivation of sleep, for example, sharpens the perception of smells, so the brain can better distinguish between the smell of food and other smells. But there is also a connection in communication with other areas of the brain that receive food signals. This changes the decision about what food to eat.

Effects of sleeping problems

If people suffer from sleep problems, these areas of the brain may not receive enough information and overcompensate by choosing food with a richer energy density, the researchers explain. It is also possible that these other areas in the brain do not take into account the signals in the olfactory cortex. For example, the person concerned may be more likely to choose unhealthy foods when eating.

What are endocannabinoids?

Previous research has shown that lack of sleep increases certain endocannabinoids, which are naturally produced by the body and are important for nutritional behavior. They also influence how the brain reacts to smells. As a result of these effects, the researchers wondered whether changes in food intake after lack of sleep are related to how the brain reacts to food odors and whether this is due to changes in the endocannabinoids. In other words, what makes our brains react differently than normal and what influences our choice of food intake?

Participants were divided into two groups

This question was investigated in a two-part experiment involving 29 men and women aged 18 to 40. The participants were initially divided into two groups. First people were allowed to sleep normally, then four weeks later people were only allowed to sleep four hours a night. In the second group, the experimental setup was reversed. Every morning the participants were given a controlled menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In addition, the participants were offered various snacks. It measured how much food and calories the participants consumed.

Participants changed their food choices due to insomnia

It turned out that the participants changed their food selection. When deprived of sleep, they consumed foods with a higher energy density (more calories per gram). The researchers also measured the blood values ​​of two endocannabinoid compounds, 2AG and 2OG, among the participants. 2OG was increased after insomnia and this increase was associated with changes in food choices.

Insomnia greatly changes activity in the piriform cortex

In addition, functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to examine changes in the piriform cortex. For this, the participants were exposed to various food smells and non-food smells. This cortical region of the brain is affected by the nose. The researchers found that activity in the piriform cortex differed more between food smells and non-food smells when the participants suffered from insomnia. The piriform cortex usually sends information to another area of ​​the brain, the so-called island cortex. This area of ​​the brain receives signals that are important for food intake, such as smell and taste and how much food is available in the stomach.

Faulty communication between brain regions leads to changes in food intake

The island cortex of a sleepless person showed reduced connectivity (a measure of communication between two brain regions) with the piriform cortex. The degree of this decrease was related to the increase in 2-OG and how much the participants changed their food choices when they were deprived of sleep. If the piriform cortex does not communicate properly with the insula, people start eating more energy-rich food, the researchers report.

How can the change in food intake due to lack of sleep be prevented?

People should take care to get enough sleep. In addition, food intake should take into account how our nose affects our food choices. The results suggest that sleep deprivation makes our brains more susceptible to tempting food smells. So the next time you have a sleepless night out, it might make sense to avoid fast food stores. (as)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Surabhi Bhutani, James D Howard, Rachel Reynolds, Phyllis C Zee, Jay Gottfried et al .: Olfactory connectivity mediates sleep-dependent food choices in humans, in eLife (query: 09.10.2019), eLife

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