How Lack of Sleep Drives Us to Overeat

By Julie Upton

 Sleep Yourself Skinny (…New research findings about lack of sleep and weight gain)

One of the easiest diet tips we give is to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night. That’s because several studies have linked lack of sleep to weight gain and out-of-control cravings for high-calorie treats.

In a review article just published in the Journal of Health Psychology, outlines the hormonal and behavioral factors that lead to increased food consumption when sleep is insufficient or disrupted.

In one study of six years, researchers found that those who reported that they routinely slept 5-6 hours were more likely to gain more than 4 pounds during the study period compared to subjects who reported sleeping 7-8 hours per night.

In another study, 26 normal-weight men and women who routinely slept a normal 7-9 hours a night were required to go to a sleep lab and get only four hours of sleep. After the short’s night rest, the subjects were allowed to eat whatever they desired.

After insufficient sleep, women subjects ate 329 more calories and men ate some 263 more calories over the day, compared to when they had their normal amount of sleep. What’s more, the women craved and ate more comfort foods (read: high-cal, high-fat, high-sugar) like ice cream and fast food. An extra 300 calories a day equals 2100 calories a week and that equals more than a half-pound weight gain per week. As you can see, being sleep-deprived can make the pounds pile on if you do it for extended periods of time. And, unfortunately, we can’t hibernate and sleep off the fat that we’ve gained.

Why Lack of Sleep Drives Us to Overeat

Studies suggest that sleep-deprivation disrupts the normal hunger and fullness hormones, ghrelin and leptin. Lack of sleep makes ghrelin (the hunger hormone) rise and causes leptin (the hormone that signals fullness) to fall. What’s more, insufficient sleep affects areas of the brain that process rewards and consequences, so we’re more likely to crave treats and less likely to care about the consequences of eating those hi-cal choices.

Use these 7 smart solutions for getting good night’s sleep:

  1. Maintain a regular wake and sleep pattern seven days a week. This is perhaps the most important step in establishing a healthy sleep schedule, as the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, relies on consistency. Establishing a regular sleep and wake pattern can help you fall asleep faster, and remain asleep, until it’s time to wake up and start your day.
  2. Unwind before bed with a relaxing, routine activity. It takes some time for the body to shift into “sleep mode.” To nudge things in the right direction, spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity, such as reading a book, listening to soothing music, or soaking in a hot bath. This helps to create a barrier between stress-promoting activities and your sacred sleep time.
  3. Avoid using electronic devices an hour before bed, and during the middle of the night.Using electronic devices such as laptops, smart phones, and tablets before bed can make it hard to fall asleep due to the brain-activating light radiating from the screens of these devices. Even small electronic devices can emit sufficient light to miscue the brain and promote wakefulness, instead of much needed shut-eye.
  4. Steer clear of naps, especially in the afternoon. Power naps can provide a refreshing pick-me-up, but if you’re unable to fall asleep when bedtime rolls around, consider nixing even short catnaps during the day.
  5. Engage in regular physical activity. While exercising at the expense of adequate sleep is counterproductive, carving out time for daily physical activity can significantly improve your sleep. Vigorous physical activity is best, but even moderate to light exercise will pay off. Exercise at the time of day that works best for you, but for the evening-exercisers among us: avoid vigorous physical activity too close to bedtime, as it takes time for your body to wind back down post-workout.
  6. Avoid stimulants (caffeine and cigarettes), sleep-disrupting substances (alcohol), and heavy meals in the evening.Caffeine and cigarettes are nervous system stimulants that can interfere with the onset of sleep, while alcohol does its damage by causing poor sleep quality and arousal as the body begins to metabolize it. Finally, large, spicy meals close to bedtime can also be problematic, as they can lead to indigestion.
  7. Use your bed only for sleeping. Create a sleep-friendly bedroom and if you can’t sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired. The goal is to strengthen the association between your bed and sleep, so refrain from introducing work materials or electronics into your bedroom, and don’t toss and turn in bed while staring anxiously at the clock.


Julie Upton is a registered dietitian and communications expert specializing in nutrition, fitness and health. Ms. Upton is a nationally recognized journalist who has written thousands of articles for national newspapers, magazines and e-media including The New York Times, Prevention, Shape, Health, Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Men’s Journal. She is co-author of The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health’s 101 Fat Habits and Slim Solutions (Penguin 2013) and Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food and Nutrition Guide to Fuel Your Active LIfe (Wiley 2009). Upton co-founded Appetite for Health (, where she blogs daily about nutrition, fitness and health. She is a frequent guest on national and local television and radio stations. She has been interviewed on the NBC Today Show, CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight. She co-produces Appetite for Health, a weekly nutrition news segment that airs nationally and writes for the companion website, Ms. Upton attended the University of Michigan and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition from Michigan State University. She completed her dietetic internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital. She holds a Master of Science Degree in Nutrition Communications from Boston University.