We all know that sleepless nights can be ruinous for overall performance and attention, but a new study shows that lack of sleep can also cause cravings for junk food. Most of the time, when we are well rested, it’s easy to choose leafy green veggies, and whole grains, but when we miss out on essential sleep, it’s more likely that we reach for those doughnuts or other empty calories.
The study, done at UC Berkely, took a look at the regions in the brain that control our choices of food. The findings helped to clarify the link between lack of sleep and obesity. For the study, researchers used a technique called magnetic resonance imaging. They did brain scans on 23 young adults who were healthy two times. The first time the scan was done after a good night of sleep, and the next time the scan was done, it was after the participants had experienced a lack of sleep.
In the frontal lobe of the sleep-deprived brains, there was impaired activity. This area rules the complicated decisions. In the deeper parts of the brain that responds to rewards, there was actually an increase in activity. Not only that, but the researchers found that participants preferred junk foods and unhealthy snacks when they were struggling with a lack of sleep.
According to Matthew Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley, and the senior author of the study in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers discovered that the brain regions that are high level and necessary for making complicated decisions and judgments tend to become dulled with a lack of sleep. The more primal brain centers that control desire and motivation tend to be enhanced. He reported that foods that were high in calories became more desirable to participants when they were battling a lack of sleep. The altered brain activity, as well as the change in decision making abilities, may be part of the reason that people that get less sleep tend to be obese or overweight.
While studies in the past have found a connection between sleeplessness and bigger appetites, especially when salty and sweet foods are involved. These latest findings helped to offer a more specific mechanism in the brain that explains why food choices become much worse when a person has not gotten the sleep they need.
For the study, the food choices ranged from fruits like apples, carrots and strawberries, to those with high calories such as doughnuts, burgers and pizza. The high calorie foods were the preferred food for those that had experienced a sleepless night.
So, for those looking to control and lose weight, a great night of sleep may be the best weapon available.