Have you ever noticed that you feel hungrier or have uncontrollable cravings for certain foods after a poor night’s sleep? It’s not just your imagination—there’s a link between sleep and hunger.
Studies show that even a single night of sleep deprivation changes the levels of our hunger and appetite hormones, leading to increased hunger. It also affects the way your brain’s motivation centers respond to the sight (or even the thought) of food.
Essentially, when you are under-rested, both your body and brain send strong signals that drive you to the drive-through. Those extra calories can easily lead to weight gain, which would seem to explain the well-documented connection between undersleeping and being overweight. Undersleeping is also associated with increased risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
When you’re under-rested, both your body and brain send strong signals that drive you to the drive-through
There is some good news here. Researchers from University of Cape Town in South Africa recently analyzed results from seven studies that used various methods to increase sleep duration. They found that when people got more sleep, they were less hungry during the day. Even better, they experienced reduced desire for sweet and salty foods.
Perhaps this is the motivation you need to finally get serious about improving your sleep habits. But how?
The first step involves a set of practices collectively referred to as “sleep hygiene.” If that doesn’t help, there are some more intensive approaches you can try. But let’s start with the basics.
Basics of Good Sleep Hygiene
Limit caffeine after midday. Caffeine can make you more alert and boost your ability to concentrate. It also appears to have neuroprotective properties. Regular consumption of caffeine reduces the risk of both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. But because it is stimulant, it can interfier with sleep. Although individual tolerance varies, most people sleep better if they avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening.
See also: Is Caffeine Bad for You?
Limit your alcohol intake. Although a couple of drinks may make you feel drowsy and even make it easier to drop off to sleep, alcohol actually interferes with sleep quality. You may wake in the middle of the night or sleep less deeply. If you’re having trouble sleeping through the night, try cutting back on alcohol in general, and not consuming it within 3 hours of bedtime. In other words, enjoy your glass of wine with dinner and then put the bottle away for the evening.
Make sure the room in which you sleep is cool, dark, and quiet. Turn down the thermostat, use blackout curtains or an eyemask, and ear plugs or a white noise generator.
Seek out natural sunlight during the daytime but avoid bright lights in the evening. Your body’s sleep-wake cycles are regulated in part by light exposure. Exposure to natural light during the day can help you feel more alert and lift your mood. It’s also a good way to reset your internal clock if you’ve crossed a couple of time zones. But in the evening, you want the exactly opposite: Softer, lower lighting helps to signal your body and brain that it’s time to rest. The light emitted by our electronic screens (not to mention the mental stimulation we get from them) is especially disruptive to our sleep rhythms. Leave the phone and tablet in the kitchen and crawl into bed with a book instead.
See also: Can’t Sleep? Blame the Tablet
Exercise regularly—even a little bit helps. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can drastically improve nighttime sleep quality.” My colleague, Get-Fit Guy, recently explored the ways in which exercise can help you sleep better. (Bonus: Sleeping better can improve your fitness).
Don’t eat too close to bedtime. If you have trouble with acid reflux, it’s best not to lie down for at least two hours after eating. But even if reflux is not an issue, eating a large or heavy meal close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep patterns. If you feel you must have a snack before bed, keep it small and mostly carbohydrate: A piece of fruit, a few crackers, or a small bowl of cereal.
Get into a rhythm. Although it may be tempting to go to bed and sleep later on the weekends, you’ll probably sleep better if you can keep your bedtime and wake times more consistent. It also helps to establish a relaxing nighttime routine to signal to your brain and body that it’s time to shut down. This might involve stretching, yoga, breathing, journaling, meditating, self-massage, or any ritual that you find mentally and physically calming.
But what if all of that isn’t enough? There are number of other approaches for treating insomnia and there’s new research on which ones are most effective.
Following the basics of good sleep hygiene may help you sleep better. But for some people, these steps are not enough to solve the problem. Researchers writing in the journal Worldviews in Evidence Based Nursing recently compared the effectiveness of several treatments for chronic insomnia. In terms of reducing the time it took to fall asleep, and increasing the amount and quality of sleep, an approach known as Sleep Restriction Therapy was found to be the most effective.
What is Sleep Restriction Therapy?
Sleep Restriction Therapy is a behavioral approach, as opposed to a pharmacological treatment. The idea is to train your body and brain to sleep more efficiently by limiting the amount of time that you spend in bed. There are also some rules about when you get to sleep.
The first step is to establish a time at which you will get up every morning, even on the weekends. Second, take the average amount ot time you spend actually sleeping every night and add 30 minutes. This is your allowed time in bed. (For safety reasons, it’s suggested that your time in bed should never be less than five and a half hours per day.)
The first step is to establish a time at which you will get up every morning, even on the weekends.
For example, if you go to bed at 10 and get up at 6 but typically lie awake until midnight), then you’re in bed for 8 hours but only sleeping for 6 of them. For the purposes of Sleep Restriction Therapy, your allowed time in bed would be 6 hours and 30 minutes. (Don’t panic, this is temporary).
Take your allowed time in bed and count back from your wake up time to establish your bedtime. In this example, that would be 11:30 p.m. For the next two weeks, you’re going to stick to this schedule as closely as possible. Get up at your scheduled wake up time no matter how much sleep you’ve gotten. And then, even if you feel tired and think you could fall asleep earlier, try to stay up until 11:30 p.m. No day-time napping allowed.
You may actually get a little bit less sleep during this period than you normally do. And although people who suffer from insomnia are often pretty used to functioning on not enough sleep, you may be even more fatigued than usual, so choose your timing wisely. The idea here is to train your brain and body to sleep more efficiently.
After two weeks of this schedule, if you’re still feeling fatigued during the day, move your bedtime up by 15 minutes. Continue to increase your time in bed by 15 minutes a week until you are feeling good during the day and still sleeping well at night.
On average, people who implemented sleep restriction therapy fell asleep faster, woke up fewer times in the night, and if they did wake up, were able to fall asleep again more quickly.
Sleep restriction therapy obviously takes commitment. But on average, people who implemented sleep restriction therapy fell asleep faster, woke up fewer times in the night, and if they did wake up, were able to fall asleep again more quickly.
The Sleep and Hunger Connection
And to circle back to where we started, getting more sleep can not only reduce your risk of disease, it may help with appetite, cravings, and ultimately, weight loss.
Have you tried Sleep Restriction? I’d love to hear how it worked for you. Share your experience with me and other Nutrition Diva podcast listeners on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.
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