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Here's Why Staying Up Ridiculously Late Can Give You the Munchies

There's a correlation between lack of sleep and junk food consumption, a new study finds.

A new study has found that getting too little sleep may affect the brain in the same way that marijuana use induces the munchies. 

After a night of too little rest, your brain will more signal to your body demanding food than it would if you had gotten a good night's sleep, according to a new study published in the journal ​Sleep.

“Our current study adds to that growing literature and suggests that along with changes in leptin and ghrelin, alterations in endocannabinoids—all changing in the direction to favor food intake—may be mechanisms by which sleep restriction promotes overeating,” said lead author Erin Hanlon, a research associate in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the University of Chicago.

It’s no secret that skimping on sleep can cause weight gain, but “these are the first results showing that sleep restriction influences the endocannabinoid system in humans,” said Frank Scheer, of the Medical Chronobiology Program at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who wrote a commentary alongside the new study. 

Scheer also mentioned that these results have started a conversation about energy balance and food reward. 

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“Previous studies had shown that experimental sleep loss causes an increase in ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin and a decrease in ‘satiety hormone’ leptin,” he said. Additionally, “The increase in the peak in endocannabinoids following sleep restriction provides an additional mechanism that could help explain an increase in hunger.”

So, how can youo avoid this slippery slope? 

Simple: Get nine hours of sleep per night, Scheer suggests.

“With decreasing amounts of sleep, the metabolic effects appear to become progressively stronger,” he said.

The study was performed on 14 healthy young adults from ages 18 to 30 who had four nights of adequate sleep (around eight and a half hours) then four nights of restricted sleep (four and a half hours). The two sleep tests took place in a sleep lab and were separated by a month.

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While awake, the test subjects were housed in a private room and kept basically sedentary. They were fed the same meal at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Researchers monitored their calorie intake for the first three days and on the last day, the participants were able to eat as much or as little as they wanted from a buffet tailored to their personal preferences. 

Test subjects were also questioned about their hunger, appetite, energy level and mood during the 24-hour period of blood sampling, 25 minutes before each meal and one hour and 35 minutes following.

Participants then had blood samples drawn which showed that they had higher levels of endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), a chemical signal that makes junk foods pleasurable. 2-AG is usually low overnight and rises throughout the day, peaking in the afternoon. Researchers discovered that in the sleep-deprived case, 2-AG stayed elevated late in the evening and the test subjects also reported higher hunger scores.

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