Could a lack of sleep be making you fat?

I spent the weekend in the lovely English countryside with my other half. It was wonderful….until 5am yesterday morning when we had to drag ourselves out of bed – after around five and half hour’s sleep – and drive back to London for my other half’s 7am start time.

After the initial shock of getting up in the middle of the night (it felt like that, anyway) I felt exhilarated by my early start. The sun was coming up as we drove and by 6:30am I was in London and ready to start my day, having already listened to the morning news on the way in.  I’ll admit it, I felt rather smug.

Things started to go downhill at about 9am. I suddenly felt tired and lacking in energy. Despite my usual daddy-bear-sized bowl of porridge only a few hours earlier, I also felt very hungry. I wanted thick white toast smeared with butter and jam. And Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. And chocolate biscuits.

I managed to get through the day, succumbing to my rumbling stomach only once or twice more than usual. It took sheer determination to stop myself from finishing off the box of Maltesers in the cupboard though.

I mentioned my increased appetite to my other half, after polishing off three large chicken fajitas for tea last night. He, too, had felt especially hungry that day – although he is constantly hungry so I’m not sure how remarkable that is!

I reflected on our conversation later that evening. Was our greediness that day a consequence of our lack of sleep the night before?

First thing this morning – after an early night and a glorious eight hours of sleep – I did a spot of research. And there was my answer in black and white: according to a number of scientific studies, a lack of sleep increases feelings of hunger, which can lead to eating more and gaining weight.

I found three 2004 studies[1], that had all found a link between sleep and the hormones that are involved in regulating appetite – ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry and leptin, which suppresses appetite. These studies found that people who slept for shorter durations had increased ghrelin levels and reduced leptin levels. Wow!

One of these 2004 studies, reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also found that sleep deprivation affects our food choices. In that study, when sleep was restricted, the participants craved calorie-dense foods with high carbohydrate content.

In a recent study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March 2010, the participants (healthy, normal-weight young men) took in 22% more calories, on average, when they’d slept for four hours the night before, compared to when they slept for eight hours. The average calorie increase after a night of restricted sleep was about 560, equivalent to a Dominos cheese and tomato pizza!

This is fascinating! The results match my own experience completely – increased appetite, craving carbs and eating more calories than normal. What an eye-opener.

So, the next time you’re feeling extra peckish, consider whether your sleeping habits could be to blame. And, if you’re trying to lose weight, getting some more quality sleep could be the key to shifting those pounds!


[1] Karine Spiegel, PhD; Esra Tasali, MD; Plamen Penev, MD, PhD; and Eve Van Cauter, PhD (7 December 2004)“Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men Is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite”, Annals of Internal Medicine, vol 141: pp 846-850

Does the lack of sleep make you fat? (7 December 2004) Bristol University Press Release

Shahrad Taheri, Ling Lin, Diane Austin, Terry Young, Emmanual Mignot (December 2004) Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index Public Library of Science Medicine

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  1. […] falling asleep more of a challenge. The result of an early start is typically fatigue, lethargy and increased appetite. Simply put, you feel rubbish and want to eat […]

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