March 22, 2019
Sugar cravings holding you back? You might need sleep
The choice to eat nutritious foods and build a healthy lifestyle requires a daily commitment. Even though you have your goal in sight, it doesn’t mean it’s always easy. In fact, just when you’ve decided you’re going to change, that donut or cookie might be more tempting than ever. More could be at work than a lack of willpower. If you’re not getting enough sleep, your body’s natural response to sleep deprivation could be getting in the way of your goals.
Lack of sleep changes your appetite
A complex series of hormones are released to tell your brain when you’re hungry. Anytime you get less than seven hours of sleep the primary hunger hormone, ghrelin, gets released in higher amounts than usual. At the same time, the hormone leptin, which controls fullness or satiety, gets released in smaller amounts.
Essentially, you’re hungrier than ever and you keep eating because you don’t feel full. The lag between hunger and satiety creates the perfect equation for overeating.
Sugar cravings intensify when you’re tired
Lack of sleep also intensifies your food cravings, particularly for foods high in sugar and fat. The brain has a reward center that makes you feel good when you do certain things. Anytime you receive a compliment, achieve a goal, or eat food it feels good so that you are more likely to repeat that behavior.
When you’re sleep deprived, this part of the brain takes a bigger “hit” than normal from unhealthy foods. Studies have found that lack of sleep can cause people to choose foods “with 50 percent more calories and twice the fat.” It’s hard to quell those cravings when your brain is feeling so good because of them.
Create habits that support sleep
Your health success depends on adequate sleep. On average, most adults need seven to nine full hours of sleep for the body to be rested and ready to function at peak efficiency. Thankfully, the amount of sleep you get and the quality of it are highly responsive to your personal habits and behaviors. That gives you the power to influence the timing and duration of your sleep cycle.
Eat regular meals made of nutritious foods
The body relies on patterns of behavior to determine when to start the sleep cycle. Evenly spacing your meals and eating them at approximately the same time each day helps your body recognize when to release sleep hormones.
Create a predictable bedtime routine
Bedtime routines train the brain to start the sleep cycle. They also give the brain and body a chance to release tension and stress that may have built up during the day. Take full advantage of your bedtime routine by including activities like meditation and yoga that help bring your heart rate and blood pressure down, making it easier to fall asleep.
Set a bedtime and stick to it
The human body truly loves a good routine. When you set a bedtime and strictly keep it, your brain automatically begins the release sleep hormones to accommodate your preferred schedule. The consistency of your routine can further strengthen your body’s response to sleep hormones.
Turn off screens
We’re more connected now than we’ve ever been in human history. While communication and access to information is a good thing, too much can interfere with how your body functions. Electronic screens from e-readers, smartphones, televisions, and laptops can emit a blue spectrum light that directly suppresses sleep hormones. It can take up to two or three hours for the effects to wear off, so you need to shut everything down long before bedtime.
Spend time outside
The reason blue spectrum light suppresses sleep hormones is because it affects the brain in a way that’s similar to sunlight. Special photoreceptors in the eyes capture blue light and send sleep hormone suppressing signals directly to the brain. To keep your sleep cycle in sync, get plenty of sunshine in the morning and early afternoon. As sunlight starts to fade in the evening, your brain will be ready to flood the body with sleep hormones.
While willpower is an important component of making healthy food choices, so is adequate sleep. Think of it as a pillar in the trifecta of your health—nutritious food, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. Improving your sleep habits may take time, but it’s worth the effort for the improvements you’ll see in all aspects of your health.
Amy Highland is a sleep expert at SleepHelp.org. Her preferred research topics are health and wellness, so Amy’s a regular reader of Scientific American and Nature. She loves taking naps during thunderstorms and cuddling up with a blanket, book, and cats.