You might have noticed that you often crave unhealthy or junk foods when you do not get enough sleep at night. Well, there is scientific evidence that you tend to eat junk foods more when you are deprived of sleep.
Behavioral Neuroscientist Erin Hanlon from the University of Chicago said, “When you’re sleep deprived, you’re not like, ‘Oh, you know what, I want some carrots.’”
“You’re craving sweets and salty and starchy things,” added Hanlon. “You want those chips, you want a cookie, you want some candy, you know?”
What is the connection between sleep deprivation and junk food? Well, it goes back to the ancient times when people used to dig deep into the ground to find starchy stems, looked for delicious berries and binged on oily fish.
In simple words, sleep deprivation triggers ancient instincts that languished for sweet and fatty foods.
Hanlon explained, “Evolutionarily speaking, it was a big deal to have a high carb, high fat meal, because you didn’t necessarily have those all of the time. If you think back to feast or famine times, having a meal with lots of carbs or fat was something that your brain would say, ‘Hey, we want to have that.’”
“It’s only the last bit of humanity that we have been able to have food around the clock or food that is high in saturated fats and high in carbs,” added Hanlon. “And our brain has not evolved as quickly as the food choices that have become available.”
We have a couple of hormones that regulate our desire to eat – Leptin and Ghrelin.
Sleep Specialist Dr. Raj Dasgupta at Keck Medicine of USC said, “I always tell my patients to think about them by their first letter. The ‘L’ in Leptin stands for ‘Lose’ – it suppresses appetite and therefore contributes to weight loss. The ‘G’ in Ghrelin stands for ‘Gain’ – this fast-acting hormone increases hunger and leads to weight gain.”
Research has shown that when people are deprived of sleep, their Ghrelin levels increase and Leptin levels decrease, resulting in increased appetite. However, this does not explain why there is a desire for junk foods than healthy foods.
So, why do we crave for candies than carrots? For that, you need to understand another important system of the body called the endocannabinoid system, which controls everything from appetite to sleep, from inflammation to pain, and more.
Endocannabinoids trigger the munchies when you are sleep deprived.
Hanlon said, “We know that you can infuse endocannabinoids into specific regions of animals’ brains and make them eat. They will eat specific things, more palatable things. They will choose sucrose over saccharin, despite the fact that in theory both taste the same, but the sucrose has more carbs.” May researchers now believe that the endocannabinoid system could trigger our cravings for starchy, sugary and fatty foods, especially when we are sleep deprived.