The Unexamined Life

Junk Food: Does Sleep Deprivation Lead To Unhealthy Cravings?

Being sleep deprived could be another woe to the list of health problems, which potentially causes heart problems, diabetes and depression. According to a recent study by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, inadequate sleep compromises the olfactory system’s proper functioning by heightening the sense of smell. 

How Does This Happen?

Yes, if you do not sleep enough, your nose can distinguish between food and nonfood smells since certain parts of the brain become unreceptive to communication. This process stimulates cravings for unhealthy fats, especially found in junk food. The olfactory cortex might not be able to tell that this particular sensory perception has become overactive since the brains' signals get intercepted by the increase in the production of some neurotransmitters (endocannabinoids).  

“When you're sleep deprived, these brain areas may not be getting enough information, and you're overcompensating by choosing food with a richer energy signal,” Thorsten Kahnt, senior author of the study said in a press release.

What The Study Found

The researchers tested their hypothesis on a group of 29 men and women aged between 18 to 40 years old, who were divided into two groups. While one group was left to sleep adequately, the other group's sleep was limited to just four hours. After an entire month, the group’s sleeping activity was interchanged.

Food choices of the participants were controlled every day for both groups, including the availability of junk food. In the end, the researchers monitored the quantity of their daily intake depending on how much they had slept.  

Food preferences had changed when the groups sleeping patterns had shifted, they noted. "After being sleep deprived, they ate food with higher energy density (more calories per gram) like doughnuts, chocolate chip cookies and potato chips," Kahnt said.

Brain Compounds Monitored

To determine this result with more accuracy, researchers tested their blood and checked for the level of two endocannabinoid compounds, namely 2AG and 2OG. It was found that when a person was sleep deprived, the 2OG levels had increased and influenced the choice of food. The rise in 2OG levels was related to the breakdown in communication between the parts of the brain responsible for food intake. 

"Our findings suggest that sleep deprivation makes our brain more susceptible to enticing food smells, so maybe it might be worth taking a detour to avoid your local doughnut shop next time you catch a 6 a.m. flight," Kahnt added.

junk food Junk food cravings increase due to lack of sleep, a study by Northwestern Medicine finds. Alpha CC BY-SA 2.0

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