How Sleep Deprivation Makes Us Want to Eat Fat

New research shows decreased activity in the parts of the brain that regulate "food desirability."
More
[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
l.richarz/flickr

Over the past 30 years many studies have shown that sleep deprivation correlates with gaining weight. How exactly that works in our brains still isn't clear, though.

This week adds a small  but interesting study (23 subjects) that looked at real-time brain imaging while people ate different kinds of food while sleep-deprived and rested. It found that "reward centers" in our brains seem to respond more strongly to fatty and sweet foods when we are sleep-deprived. We also generally make less "rational" (more impulsive) decisions when we're sleep-deprived, and this study showed that insular and frontal cortices that regulate "food desirability choices" were visibly less active when we haven't slept.

SHARK300200.jpgNature Communications

Matthew Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley, is the lead author of "The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain" in the current issue of the journal Nature Communications.

“I think you have about 16 hours of optimal functioning before the brain needs to go offline and sleep,” Walker told Anahad O'Connor at The New York Times. “It’s the single most effective thing people can do every day to reset their brain and body health.”

After that we go into a stress-response state where calorically-dense foods seem more desirable from a self preservation standpoint. Walker believes that this study "provide[s] an explanatory brain mechanism by which insufficient sleep may lead to the development/maintenance of obesity." That is, among multiple other proposed bodily mechanisms.

Walker has also done interesting sleep-deprivation research looking at its relationship to mental illness. (It involves us turning to "emotional Jell-O.")

All of this in case you aren't already worried that you're not getting enough sleep, and that anxiety isn't making you seek out waffle tacos.

Jump to comments
Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.

 
 
More

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon About the Toys in Your Cereal Box

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In