How to Eat when You’re Sleep Deprived

By July 25, 2017 December 28th, 2018 No Comments

Have you ever been so tired that you literally cannot function?  You fall asleep at your desk, have a foggy brain, or all you can think about is sleeping.  Another thing that happens to me is I have serious cravings for high sugar and high fat foods – think candy, French fries, and cookies.  My flight out of Philadelphia was delayed on Sunday, so I didn’t get home until 1:00 a.m. on Monday morning; giving me only 4 hours until I had to wake up and get ready for work.  Needless to say, I was exhausted on Monday… and I was craving all the foods!  There is nothing wrong with having these high fat, high sugar foods occasionally, but why do I crave them more when I’m sleep deprived? 

Research has shown that there is a clear relationship between sleep deprivation and overeating.  This study in the Journal of Obesity found that individuals who slept only four hours over five consecutive nights had higher activity in the pleasure center of their brains when shown high fat and high sugar foods; compared to a group of individuals who slept nine hours each night.  This illustrates that just by being chronically exhausted, our brain is more open to and more excited about fueling with the “sometimes” foods over the “always” foods.  I liken this to the fact that your brain is seeking quick energy to get you through the day.  When you get sufficient sleep, you are thinking more clearly and your brain wants more sustained energy. 

Several other studies have outlined the serious hormonal implications that occur due to lack of sleep.  We have two main hunger hormones that are effected:

  1. Leptin lets you know you’re full; ultimately decreasing your appetite
  2. Ghrelin increases your appetite and lets your brain know when you’re hungry

When sleep deprived, leptin decreases; leading to decreased feelings of fullness, and ghrelin increases, keeping your appetite high even if you are eating enough.  This clearly indicates that sleep deprivation increases hunger and appetite by effecting these important hormones. 

There is another hormone that is effected by lack of sleep: cortisol.  Cortisol is the hormone that is released into the blood during times of increased stress; and is therefore called the “stress hormone”.  Chronic elevations of cortisol and inflammatory proteins can lead to increased risk of certain diseases and ongoing disease development.  Cortisol scares me more than any other hormone!  So many people are chronically stressed and they don’t realize this stress is causing more harm than ever!  The effects of elevated cortisol become even worse in people who are stressed AND sleep deprived.  Research shows that cortisol increases significantly from chronic sleep deprivation.  This study even found that just one night of total sleep deprivation increased cortisol levels, especially in the early evening and early morning hours. 

It is inevitable that we are all going to be sleep deprived at some point in our life.  Newborn baby at home, work deadlines, or delayed flights are things that are just going to happen.  So, how do you deal with the effects of sleep deprivation; specifically, how should you tackle your eating for the day?    

  • Try to eat low glycemic whole grains – add in brown or black rice, quinoa, barley, and oats.  These intact whole grains should help with your hunger levels somewhat, because of the fiber content. 
  • Include healthy fat – foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, oily fish, and vegetable oil are high in mono and polyunsaturated fats, which should help with satiety over the course of the day.
  • Eat three balanced meals – even though you are craving snacks (I sure was!) try to eat 3 balanced meals.  Oats with nut butter, flax seeds, and berries in the morning; salmon over a bed of greens and rice for lunch; and a turkey burger topped with avocado for dinner are a few great choices.
  • Let yourself have something that you’re craving.  If you are craving chocolate or a doughnut let yourself have it!  I ended up having a no-bake cookie and some of the new caramel M&M’s (delicious btw).  Just make sure to get ample sleep that night to get your hormones back on track the next day.

Give some of these tips a try the next time you are sleep deprived and feeling the effects.  The most important thing is to not deprive yourself and let yourself have a “sometime” food if you are truly craving it!  Just get in a nap and a good night’s sleep and get back at it the next day. 

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