From Dr. Mercola:

If you’re trying to lose weight or maintain your current weight, you probably know the drill. Eat right, exercise and get a handle on your stress levels. But there’s another factor that many people overlook; it’s insidious and can sabotage even the most determined among us: sleep.

Or, more specifically, lack of sleep. This presents a hurdle to weight loss and maintenance in a number of ways, including affecting your food cravings. Trying to eat right when you’re sleep deprived is like trying to dry off in the rain; it’s very difficult.

When you’re tired, your body is running on reserves and what energy you do have you’ll devote to the essential tasks of your day – caring for your children, work obligations and the like.

While on a day you’re feeling well-rested you might also have the energy to devote to planning and preparing healthy meals, on a sleep-deprived day you’ll probably succumb to the temptation to just order takeout. There’s far more to this cycle than simple lack of energy, however.

Lack of Sleep Gives You the Munchies

“The munchies” is a well-known phenomenon associated with marijuana use. The drug makes junk foods seem irresistible, and when you eat them they taste especially flavorful and satisfying. But it’s not only marijuana that causes the munchies – so, too, does sleep deprivation.

Like marijuana, it’s believed that “sleep restriction is associated with activation of the endocannabinoid (eCB) system, a key component of hedonic pathways involved in modulating appetite and food intake,” according to recent research published in the journal Sleep.1

The study compared the effects of four nights of normal sleep (8.5 hours) with four nights of restricted sleep (4.5 hours) among 14 young adults. Levels of endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), a chemical that makes foods pleasurable, were elevated when the participants were sleep deprived.2

Sleep Deprivation May Elevate ‘Hunger Chemical’ 2-AG

On a typical day, your 2-AG levels tend to be low overnight then rise slowly until they peak in the afternoon. But in those who were sleep deprived the levels stayed elevated until late in the evening. According to the researchers:3

When sleep deprived, participants reported increases in hunger and appetite concomitant with the afternoon elevation of 2-AG concentrations, and were less able to inhibit intake of palatable snacks.”

When the participants had less sleep, they ate snacks with more carbohydrates along with close to double the amount of fat and protein compared to when they were well rested.

While past research has shown lack of sleep influences hormone levels, including increasing the “hunger hormone” ghrelin and decreasing leptin, which is involved in satiety, this is the first study to show it may also influence the endocannabionoid system.

Frank Scheer of the Medical Chronobiology Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said in a related commentary:4,5

“The increase in the peak in endocannabinoids following sleep restriction provides an additional mechanism that could help explain an increase in hunger.”

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