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Lack of sleep linked to junk food cravings: 5 tips to help

It seems that not getting enough sleep doesn’t just play havoc with your energy levels and cause crankiness through fatigue, but it can affect your health through poor food choices as well.

Previous research has shown that healthy individuals tend to eat more when they’re tired and their desire for sugary or salty food also increases. Researchers at UC Berkeley have shown why that is by looking at regions of the brain that control food choices.

Apparently a lack of sleep can lead to dysfunction in specific areas of the frontal lobe of the brain which is where appetite signalling occurs and are responsible for making smart and informed decisions regarding food selection. Not only did this function decrease, but there was also increased activity in the deeper brain which is where the reward centre is.

Participants in other studies have also shown that the sleep deprived tend to prefer sugary or salty food more than usual. This combined with the altered brain activity and change in decision making may explain why many tend to reach for the burger or chips when they’re late from work instead of the grilled salmon and broccoli.

I have seen patients who say that the boredom of being awake at 3am is sometimes worse than the fatigue they get by Friday after a working week of poor sleep. Some resort to tossing and turning in bed and reading endless novels, but others have admitted to getting a bite to eat, even when they’re not particularly hungry. And at that hour biscuits and savory snacks are a lot easier to open and eat than a bowl of cereal or a carrot. (Somehow, carrots don’t make a very good midnight snack, although carrot cakes do.)

This link between lack of sleep and weight gain is very real, although it does mean that if sleep is an issue, then when that gets resolved it should benefit a weight-loss program.

Try these tips to help your body readjust:

1. Get some sleep. I know that sounds so obvious, but if insomnia isn’t a problem then it really can be so easy to forget to just go to sleep. Whether it’s a night out with friends, or that amazing DVD box set you said you’d only watch a few episodes of and now it’s way past your bedtime, it really is a matter of just getting up and switching off.

2.  Switch off and get some sleep. This may sound a lot like #1 but this is more for those of you who work really, really hard. Pulling an all-nighter once in a while is not such a problem but if you’re waking up at 3am to work on that project most nights, then you really need to stop. Either your workload is too much or you need to stop tweaking and perfecting. I do believe that there are night owl personalities who do their best work when the world is asleep but if you live in the daytime world with the rest of us, eventually you will burn out. Write down your ideas (bullet point not whole paragraphs!) in a notepad and then go back to sleep. As a practitioner, I’d rather you forego a few lunches than a few nights of sleep.

3.  If insomnia is an issue, get help. Whether it’s acupuncture or relaxation therapies, don’t let it become a fixture in your life. It’s fine to not be able to sleep for a while, but usually after a week or two of it your body will become so tired, it will work itself out. But if you’ve been sleeping poorly for more than a month, don’t wait for it to sort out on its own.

4. If other things are keeping you awake, find out what it is and resolve it. Are you a light sleeper? Then you’ll have to close the window and turn on a fan. Is it a bad cough or frequent trips to the bathroom? Go to your GP or see your acupuncturist. Is it stress or overthinking or your brain is whirring non stop? Again, find the appropriate therapy that you like. Is it pain or a bad mattress? Find the solution.

5. Keep snacks out of the house. This helps whether you’re a daytime snacker or a night-time snacker. If it’s not available, you can’t eat it. Or try this: stock stuff you don’t like. I have been known to buy pretzels because I really can’t stand them. One or two of those and really it stops any desire for lovely snacking. Or have a healthy drink instead: a glass of milk, diluted juice, something quick and easy to pour into a glass. I find at those moments, making a cup of tea just means you have time to look in the cupboards while the kettle is boiling.

Sleep deprivation linked to junk food cravings | UC Berkeley


Image: Flickr, Tobias Sieben

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