Imagine a piece of yummy chocolate cake with its glorious chocolate icing and soft, mousse-like interior. You can almost taste how easily it will melt in your mouth, right after the first bite. Suddenly, the alarm rings and it's all just a dream. You've only had six hours of sleep; you're cranky; and you're craving that chocolate cake. Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have found that a lack of sleep is so deeply connected to food intake that the less you sleep, the more you eat — possibly bad food.
A new paper published in the SAGE journal, Journal of Health Psychology (JHP), suggests that disrupted sleep could be a really important factor contributing to excess food intake. In a special issue on Food, Diets, and Dieting, the paper explores how a bad night's sleep can affect eating habits and behaviours. This research is important as bad sleeping habits combined with bad eating habits can lead to long-term chronic health damage in both adults and children. Although it is very well-known that a bad night's sleep can affect our ability to perform daily duties, there is little research to highlight the ways in which disrupted sleep can influence both our food choices and intake.
"It is well recognized that food intake is implicated in many chronic health issues including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and diet is often a target of treatment to prevent the onset of these conditions. Understanding the mechanisms linking disrupted sleep patterns to increased food intake is important for informing both prevention and treatment interventions for chronic health conditions."
They studied a lot of prior research to assess the ways in which lack of sleep (or even disruptive sleep) affects eating habits. One of their many conclusions was that after a bad night's sleep, the hormone that controls appetite is affected. As lack of sleep increases emotional stress, more food is desired to compensate for lack of energy, and impulsivity is increased. All of this will inevitably affect the amount of food that you will consume in a day. In addition, they claim that past research has suggested that alterations in homeostatic, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural factors following sleep disruption may influence each other. In other words, emotional factors such as “feeling blue” or “feeling happy” after a disrupted night's sleep are likely to affect cognitive and behavioural functions beyond just eating habits. Therefore, it is quite likely that if other factors are affected by a lack of sleep, then we would indeed make poor food choices.
As all of these factors are so deeply interconnected, they conclude that:
"Health psychologists should be mindful of the link between sleep and eating, and sleep should be actively considered in efforts to modify dietary behavior."
This research has very important future clinical and research implications with regards to those health conditions that are often treated via dietary interventions, e.g., obesity. The research highlights the need for future research to examine the underlying mechanisms of food intake, such as making (lack of) sleep one of the factors in examining a patient's dietary variance. It is also important for people in general, because if they are suffering from a lack of sleep, they can take more care in considering their food intake. Seems like you won't be able to resist eating that chocolate cake after all, if you don't get enough sleep.