In a new study published on Monday in the medical journal Sleep, researchers have found a link between lack of sleep and the munchies — a word normally associated with marijuana use — and that those who suffer from sleep loss tend to get the munchies and the urge to binge on sugary and salty foods that are high in fat.
Erin Hanlon, the researcher who led the study at the University of Chicago, invited a small group of 14 men and women in their 20s to participate in the sleep study. She and other researchers monitored their sleeping and eating habits, as well as certain chemicals found in the blood, that are linked to appetite. The chemicals monitored included ghrelin and leptin, which boost appetite and tell the brain when the stomach is full, respectively, and the endocannabinoid 2-AG, which heightens the pleasure one feels while eating, according to the Guardian. The endocannabinoid system is the one affected by marijuana that causes the munchies.
The 14 volunteers participated in two four-day visits, during which their sleeping and eating patterns were controlled and monitored. During the first visit, the men and women spent 8.5 hours in bed each of the four nights, which resulted in an average of 7.5 hours of sleep. On their second four-day visit, the volunteers were only allowed to spend 4.5 hours in bed per night, resulting in an average of 4.2 hours of sleep. The participants were given meals at the exact same time each night of both visits — 9 a.m., 2 p.m., and 7 p.m. — and were also offered a buffet of munchies that consisted of sweet and salty snacks such as chips, cookies, and candies on the fourth night of each visit.
What the researchers found was that a lack of sleep caused higher and more persistent levels of the endocannabinoid 2-AG, which resulted in the volunteers having the munchies — a strong urge to gorge themselves on sweet and salty snacks that were high in fat — even though they had eaten a meal that consisted of roughly 90 percent of their daily caloric need just two hours prior, says Hanlon.
“We know that marijuana activates the endocannabinoid system and causes people to overeat when they are not hungry, and they normally eat yummy sweet and fatty foods. Sleep restriction may cause overeating by acting in the same manner.”
The study states that typically, the average person only needs to consume an extra 17 calories per hour extra hour of wakefulness, reports the Washington Post. However, as the body seems to overcompensate for its lack of sleep, the volunteers in Hanlon’s study ate an average of 300 calories more when they were sleep deprived, even when they were full. Hanlon also found that when the volunteers were well rested, their 2-AG levels rose in the morning, climaxed around mid-afternoon, and then began to wane again. When the participants were sleep deprived, however, their 2-AG levels rose 33 percent higher, crested around 2 p.m., and lasted until 9 p.m., and they would binge on the buffet of munchies when it was offered to them.
“What we found is that it’s not just about energy homeostasis but also for the reward or pleasurable aspects of hedonistic eating. The early afternoon drive for hedonic eating may be stronger and last longer in a state of sleep debt.”
It has long been known that a lack of sleep disrupts certain hormones that control appetite and the part of the brain that lets us know when we’re full, but with sleep disruption comes a vicious circle that leads to obesity. Those who sleep less have more hours in their day to eat and are often too tired to exercise, which can cause obesity. Obesity itself can cause breathing problems that lead to even more disrupted sleep.
Although Hanlon’s study was just a small group of 14 people, it leads the way to scientifically proving that sleep and the munchies go hand in hand.
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