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Eating When You’re Tired

By Pamela Peeke, MD, FACP, MPHApril 20, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

How many of you find that you tend to overeat when you’re sleep deprived?

I’ll bet all of you have felt this way many times. I certainly have. I can recall with vivid detail struggling to stay awake as I raced through an airport trying to make a connecting flight after a long day of meetings. As I hop on board, knowing that I’ll be getting in very late, I can feel myself slipping into a fuzzy brain place where all I want is food to comfort and energize me. I’m not hungry. I just want to eat, as though the food will cure my fatigue. And, it’s funny how my choice of food is never tuna on a bed of greens! Somehow that airport pastry shop is singing to me, along with the funky nut mix on board, and all thoughts of avoiding overeating fly right out the airplane window.

That’s when I have to summon all of my mental strength and visualize a big red STOP sign. It’s a relief to know that I can rein it in most of the time, but I’ve been at this for years.

So, is there a relationship between sleep deprivation and overeating? You better believe it.

Science now shows that when people sleep for 4 hours or less, they may end up consuming over 22 percent more calories than if they’d had the requisite 8 hours of shut-eye. The average sleepy overeating results in an extra 550 calories. That adds up to one pound of fat per week or 52 pounds per year. Ouch!

New studies have shown that lack of sleep influences at least two hormones that affect hunger. Fat cells secrete leptin, a hormone that signals your brain to stop eating. The stomach secretes the hormone ghrelin reminding you that you need to eat. Research has shown that sleep deprivation leads to suppression of leptin and increased levels of ghrelin – resulting in a whole lot of overeating. There are plenty of other hormones affected by your sleep cycle (including insulin, growth hormone, cortisol, melatonin) and we’re just beginning to understand the vast array of interactions among these body chemicals that can affect how we eat when we’re barely functioning on minimal sleep.

But who needs more studies when you already know how lousy you feel when you’re not getting the sleep you need? Why tempt fate and become vulnerable to overeating? Here are some ZZZs rules to help you optimize your sleep and minimize any sleep-deprived overeating:

1. De-stress as best you can before sleeping. Cortisol, or stress hormone, is elevated when you’re stressed. When it’s up, so are you. Cortisol levels must fall below a specific threshold in every individual before you can go to sleep. Therefore, go out of your way to avoid stirring up stress before you sleep, watching trauma on TV or dragging tough situations to bed with you. Visualize a blackboard and take your mental eraser and wipe out everything on the board. Take that warm bath, read the trash novel, watch mindless TV or listen to music. Do whatever it takes to calm down and de-stress.

2. Try to stick to a regular schedule of sleep. The body loves regularity. Optimally, during weeknights, you’re in bed between 9:30-10:30PM. The early birds won’t have a problem with this but the night owls out there will take issue. Most jobs require you to be up early so the owls have to adapt and adjust during the week. Remember that if you’re in bed earlier, you need to finish eating 1.5-2 hours prior to sleep.

3. Watch what you eat and drink before you go to bed. Alcohol should be drunk in moderation and you should finish drinking 2 hours prior to sleep or it’ll interfere with your deep sleep. Avoid caffeinated drinks. Avoid eating simple carbs (refined sugars) prior to bed as they raise insulin levels and make it more difficult to access your body’s fat fuel to burn for energy. If you’re really hungry, eat a small 100 snack like some Greek yogurt, or a small apple and low-fat cheese. Fresh cherries have melatonin and may aid your sleep. Foods that contain sleep-inducing levels of the amino acid tryptophan include dairy, soy, whole grains, legumes, hazelnuts, sesame and sunflower seeds.

4. Take an afternoon nap. Studies show that taking a 20-minute nap in the afternoon is beneficial to your productivity and is a terrific way to refresh and regroup. Twenty minutes keeps you in a light sleep stage so don’t overdo it as you’ll slip into deep sleep which then interferes with your evening snooze. You might want to set an alarm to be safe. If you don’t have time or a place to nap, try meditation which is also very effective.

5. Get the right number of ZZZs. Researchers note that adults should be accruing 7-7.5 hours a night while kids and teens can rack up 9-9.5 hours. Six hours of sleep or less triples your risk of having a car accident. And forget about trying to catch up over the weekend when you’ve been living on 4 hours of sleep per night. That doesn’t work.

Sleep is essential for healing and repairing the human mind and body. It’s also critical to achieving and sustaining your optimal weight. Avoid cutting into your sleep time. Learn to prioritize better. You’ll have so much better control over your appetite. And just remember, when you’re tired, the answer is sleep, not eating!

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