How Sleep Deprivation Affects your Appetite & causes Obesity

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Lack of Sleep & Sleep Deprivation can disrupt your Appetite and trigger Obesity

It’s easy for most people to correlate the obvious signs of physical and mental exhaustion with lack of sleep. And research now connects multiple disease processes, particularly those that are degenerative, to not getting enough quality sleep.

But what about a person’s weight? Can lack of sleep lead to a change in appetite or unwanted weight gain?

Research says yes, but exactly how remains elusive. Science continues to look for the connection.

What they are finding is eye-opening!

The Impact of Sleep Loss on the Brain’s Appetite Controls

The body wants to remain in a state of balance and that includes body weight. Ideally, appetite and food desire match the calories needed to sustain a constant weight.

There are three areas of the frontal cortex known to be associated with appetite:

    • Anterior insula cortex
    • Lateral orbitofrontal cortex
    • Anterior cingulate cortex

Together they determine how food is evaluated, food preferences, and the food best serves the level of hunger.

There are two subcortical regions of the brain associated with appetite:

    • Amygdala
    • Ventral striatum

They impact the desire for food and promote eating behavior. For example, it’s the area of the brain that can trigger binge eating.

One hallmark of sleep loss is the disrupted function of the frontal cortex and amygdala. Neurologically, in a sleep deprived state, there is reduced brain activity in the frontal cortex and higher activity in the amygdala.

Together this creates an inappropriate response to food. Research shows people in a sleep-deprived state have a greater desire for foods with a higher caloric content than needed. Sweet, salty and starchy foods are more appealing than when in a rested state and appetite and desire to eat increases significantly regardless of how the level of hunger is rated.

The brain's ability to evaluate the appetite and make an appropriate corresponding choice of food is impaired at the same time the desire for food is heightened. This inevitably leads to weight gain and is believed to be one link between sleep loss and the skyrocketing obesity rates in the industrialized world.

How Sleep Loss Impacts Hunger Hormones

Multiple hormones converge in the hypothalamic arcuate nucleus (ARC) to regulate food intake and energy expenditure. Known as the “hunger” center, the ARC integrates inputs from the vagus nerve and body fluids to play a physiological role in regulating appetite.

There are four primary hormones known to influence appetite:

    • Orexin – Produced in the hypothalamus. Controls food intake and energy expenditure.
    • Ghrelin– Produced by the gastric oxyntic gland in the stomach. Promotes appetite and food intake.
    • Leptin – Produced by white adipose tissue. Suppresses appetite.
    • Insulin – Primarily released by the pancreas but research has now shown it is also produced by the cortical glial cells in the brain. Regulates blood glucose levels and transport. Influences appetite and metabolism.

In human studies, sleep deprivation results in elevated levels of orexin and ghrelin, and lowered levels of leptin. In this state, people can end up with a big appetite and find it hard to feel full.

Lack of sleep has also been shown to increase appetite neuronal excitability which can lead to a desire to eat even though the body doesn’t need the calories.

In both human and animal studies, lack of sleep has been shown to reduce insulin sensitivity which can lead to weight gain and is a factor in multiple diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and metabolic dysfunction.

Letting Your Clients to Take Sleep Seriously

Despite the growing research that confirms sleep is critical to overall health and disease prevention, it can be hard to get people, as well as organizations, to take sleep seriously.

If you are a health practitioner who finds yourself struggling to convince clients of the importance of sleep, I’ve been there.

Although it may continue to be a challenge until sleep is acknowledged as being foundational to optimal health, here are a few things I’ve incorporated into my practice that might help you as well.

1. Be The Example

It’s difficult to promote sleep when you aren’t getting enough yourself. As a recovered “intentional insomniac,” it was hard for me to speak to my clients and students honestly and passionately on the topic of sleep when it wasn’t coming from my heart, rooted in experience.

I once believed sleep was less important than my work. I now know my work suffers without it. Getting adequate sleep will do wonders for you personally as well as professionally.

2. Promote Sleep Vacations

When I finally convince clients to stay in bed for three days, sleeping and waking naturally, with nothing but a book or creative outlet (draw, write, etc.) they finally see the light. Most people no longer know what it feels like to be well rested. Once they do, it’s addictive.

3. Read and Recommend – Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD

Few books have changed my view on something the way this one did and I recommend it to all my students and clients plus anyone else who I can.

Dr. Walker lays out the importance of sleep in such a way that it’s impossible to ignore. It also helped motivate me to make the necessary changes I needed to in order to put sleep first. I hope you will find the same.

4. Recommend Lab Testing

Sometimes the best way to convince a client to make sleep a priority is to test for those indicators that can be influenced by sleep deprivation. Once it’s on a piece of paper in front of them, it’s hard to ignore.  I recomment a complete blood sugar panel, including insulin, and hemoglobin A1C, inflammatory markers such as homocysteine, hs-CRP and ESR plus a CBC as disrupted sleep can impact immune function.

5. Create a sleep ritual you enjoy

One of the things that can get me really annoyed is when someone insists their way is the only way. Sleep hygiene is becoming a big deal, as it should. The good thing about it is the fact it is becoming more mainstream which in turn helps promote the importance of sleep.

On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of people insisting that their method to promote sleep is the best and only way to do it. The only thing that is the best is the “thing” that works for you. Create a bedtime routine you can’t wait to do each day. The only concern should be whether or not it is providing a way to enter into a restful night of sleep.

I’d love to hear about your sleep experience. Way have you tried that worked well? Comment below.


1 Comment

  1. John Zhang

    This information is so insightful. I wish more people see this. Thank you for the thorough and easy to read article!


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