Lack of sleep alters brain chemicals to bring on cannabis-style ‘munchies’

Mar 1, 2016

Photo credit: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

By Ian Sample

Too little sleep may bring on a form of the marijuana “munchies”, say scientists who found that sleep-deprived people craved crisps, sweets and biscuits far more than healthier foods.

The US researchers believe that skimping on sleep alters brain chemicals in much the same way as the hunger-boosting ingredient in cannabis, which has long propped up snack sales at 24-hour convenience stores.

After several nights of poor sleep, healthy volunteers who took part in the study reached for snacks containing more calories – and nearly twice as much fat – than ones they favoured after sleeping well for the same period, the scientists say.

When sleepy, the participants had terrible trouble resisting the snacks, even when they were full, said Erin Hanlon, who led the study at the University of Chicago.

Research has shown time and again that sleep loss raises the risk of obesity, but the reasons are complex and unclear. Insufficient sleep disrupts hormones that govern appetite and satiety. But those who sleep less have more time to eat, and may be too tired to exercise. To muddy the waters further, obesity can lead to breathing problems that themselves disrupt sleep patterns.

In a small study published in the journal Sleep, Hanlon invited 14 men and women in their twenties to spend two four-day sessions at the university’s clinical research centre. The volunteers’ time in bed was controlled, so that on one visit they averaged 7.5 hours of sleep a night, but on the other only 4 hours 11 minutes a night. During their stays, the volunteers ate identical meals, dished out at 9am, 2pm and 7pm.


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