A lack of sleep could cause the munchies

Not getting enough sleep can trigger food cravings
12 November 2019

Interview with 

Surabhi Bhutani, San Diego State University


Pots of cooked food


It sounds counter-intuitive, but an extra hour or two asleep in bed can help to reduce the risk of becoming obese. Less sleep, on the other hand, seems to be a potent stimulus to over-eat, and especially to binge on high-calorie, fatty and sugary treats. But why is this? A new study by Surabhi Bhutani, from San Diego State University, suggests that sleep deprivation leads to a surge in the body’s own cannabis-like chemicals. These, she’s found, cause a region of the brain called the insula, which controls food intake, to slacken its inhibitory grip on the brain’s smell areas, making the aroma of delicious treats just too tempting to resist, as Chris Smith discovered…

Surabhi - There is a huge body of research that suggests that chronic lack of sleep is associated with overall poor health and there is a bunch of data showing that when you do not get enough sleep you increase your food intake, and people become more reactive to unhealthy foods and foods in particular that are high in sugar and fat, that we call junk food. What we really wanted to understand was why people crave these high fat foods after a sleepless night.

Chris - Back in the past, when people first began to flush out this association between not getting enough sleep and then rebound overeating, one speculation was that the hunger hormone “ghrelin” - which is produced by the stomach and is suppressed by sleep - that goes up. So there's just a rebound overeating to compensate. So is it as simple as that?

Surabhi - It's more complicated than just hunger hormones increasing, because there are a lot of studies showing that people may not really physically feel hungry, but they still go for all those foods that are high in calories. So there has to be a different mechanism where, basically, it connects your sleep loss with consumption of very high calorie foods; so your brain, or your body, saying that I really want a doughnut, or I really want potato chips!

Chris - So you're saying that there's a switch in terms of food choices but it's not necessarily just driven by overall increase in hunger?

Surabhi - Exactly.

Chris - And what do you think underpins that then?

Surabhi - We definitely think that there are some brain signals that may be playing a role in overeating of not-so-healthy foods, and past research primarily has shown that sleep deprivation increases certain endocannabinoids. So these endocannabinoids are basically these naturally produced neurotransmitters that bind to some of the receptors in the brain and affect feeding behaviour. So they're very similar to cannabis-like compounds that can cause cannabis-related munchies. On the other hand, we also kind of know that sense of smell is also really tightly related to how we choose food items and, in particular, animal studies have shown that these endocannabinoids enhance food intake by increasing the activity of brain areas that process odours. So what we thought was that, maybe we can put all of this together and ask if what people choose to eat when they are sleep deprived is related to how the brain responds to food smells.

But what we found in our study was that, when people were sleep deprived, so they only slept for four hours, the following day when we scanned their brains and made them smell these delicious food odours and also some of the non-food odours, the piriform cortex - the region of the brain where smells are processed - in that particular region the patterns of food versus non-food odours were significantly different. So what this means in simple terms is the smell processing region in the brain goes into this “hyperdrive” - it sharpens the food odours for the brain so it can better differentiate between food and non-food odours.

Chris - And how do you tie that to changes in the endocannabinoid system, these natural brain chemicals that mimic cannabis?

Surabhi - The piriform cortex also sends signals or information out to other brain regions, in particular insula cortex. So insula receives signals that are important for food intake, and when a person is sleep-deprived, signaling between the piriform cortex - the smell processing region - and the insula, that connection was not as strong. So the signaling actually reduced. And we also found that, because of this reduction in communication, people ended up eating more energy-dense food. Now, how is it connected to the endocannabinoids, or the neurotransmitters? When we did the blood analysis, we saw that people had certain components of this endocannabinoid system very high in the blood. And those people also consumed very high energy-density food. So, putting all this together, our results suggest that the sleep deprivation really influences this endocannabinoid system, which in turn alters this connection between piriform cortex and insula cortex and, ultimately, leads to a shift towards foods which are high in calories.


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