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Sleep Loss and Eating Behavior

Authors: Ruth M. Benca, MD, PhDFaculty and Disclosures



How does sleep loss affect eating behavior?

Response from Ruth M. Benca, MD, PhD

Most studies that have tested the effect of sleep loss on feeding behaviors have been performed in animals. Both total sleep deprivation and REM sleep deprivation produce a syndrome of increased feeding but a decrease in weight in rats.[1] Furthermore, sleep-deprived animals show preference for a high-carbohydrate diet.[2] Studies performed in humans have shown similar results and suggest that sleep deprivation has direct effects on eating behavior; sleep-deprived humans also show increased appetite, particularly for high-carbohydrate, calorie-rich foods.[3] Mechanisms for these associations may be mediated in part by changes in hormones related to feeding; both sleep-deprived humans and rodents show increases in ghrelin, a hormone that increases feeding, and decreases in leptin, a hormone that decreases feeding.

Epidemiologic studies also show significant associations between sleep amount and obesity. In numerous studies in both children and adults, hours of sleep per night are inversely correlated with body mass index. A study of patients in primary care settings found that overweight and obese patients slept less than those of normal weight.[4] A study of 5- and 6-year-old children found that the prevalence of obesity was increased as sleep amount decreased, independently of other factors.[5] A recent study found that although short sleep amount was associated with increased BMI, insomnia per se was not.[6] However, other studies have noted that overweight individuals have an increased risk for insomnia; for example, in men, obesity was an independent risk factor for insomnia,[7] and in a study of older adults, those with a BMI > 27 were more likely to get the least amount of sleep (< 4.5 hours per night).[8] Although a causal association between short sleep or insomnia and obesity has not yet been proven, the findings suggest the possibility that sleep may be important in the prevention and treatment of obesity.