Lack of sleep makes us hungrier

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My eye was caught by the report of a study presented this week at the American Heart Association meeting in Atlanta in the US. In short, what this research found is that sleep deprivation led to increased eating (in the order of about 300 calories a day). This is not the first study to link shortened sleep duration with enhanced food consumption. Previous work has shown that sleep deprivation may:

  • Increase levels of ghrelin – a hormone that stimulates appetite
  • Reduce levels of leptin – a hormone that suppresses appetite (and also speeds the metabolic rate)

Perhaps not surprisingly, previous evidence has linked shorter sleep duration with an enhanced risk of being overweight or obese.

This recent research should remind us, I think, of the importance of sleep for optimal health. We have evolved to spend about a third of our lives asleep, so perhaps it’s no surprise that sleep turns out to have some vital functions for us. It occurs to me that many of us live in cultures were getting enough sleep can be challenging.

First of all, it’s probably fair to say that many of us are ‘busier’ now than our parents at grandparents were at our age. Working hours have generally increased, for instance. And now we have other distractions in the form of television (right through the night, if we wish) and the internet (on tap, 24 hours a day). It is my experience that when individuals have lots to do, sleep is usually the first thing they forgo. For many, sleep can seem like a relatively expendable commodity. Some people actually feel guilty or somehow inadequate for getting decent amounts of sleep. Other pride themselves on their (apparent) ability to get by on a few hours of sleep each night.

I’ve learned, over the years (partly through my interest in health and partly through personal experience), that sleep is something that many of us could do with valuing more. Viewing it as something that can contribute to both the quality and quantity of our lives makes it easier to justify devoting a bit more time to sleep.

If we were keen to get some more sleep, how might we do it? For most individuals, extending sleep into the morning is a bit of a non-starter. Individuals may have, for example, jobs to go to or kids to get to school. For the vast majority of people, a more practical way of getting more sleep is simply to go to bed earlier.

One thing that worked wonders for me is simply to stop watching television in the evening (actually, I don’t watch television at other times too, unless the rugby’s on). Since curing myself of my TV addiction getting on for 5 years ago, I’ve had much less reason to stay up, and have been able to get to bed earlier as a result.

Many sleep specialists recommend establishing a ‘sleep schedule’, which essentially means going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. I can see the sense in this, but my experience is that most people can’t make this work – there’s usually too many variables and commitments to make this practical. However, this does not mean that getting into bed a bit earlier on an occasional basis will not help to wipe about a bit of ‘sleep debt’ and reap dividends in terms of energy and general health.

Imagine eating dinner at 7.00 or 8.00 pm and relaxing afterwards for a couple of hours or even doing some important work. Maybe you’ve caught up on day’s events with your partner or family. Now imagine it’s 10.00 pm. You could, of course, spend another hour or two in front your TV, laptop or iPad. Or you could just go to bed. If you tend to be a bit short on sleep, the latter option is likely to be your best bet.

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