How Lack of Sleep Contributes to Poor Eating Habits

By Alicia Sanchez

Lack of sleep plays an important role in appetite control and metabolism. While getting a good seven to nine hours of sleep can be difficult for anyone, those who work swing or night shifts are in the challenging position of working against the body’s circadian rhythms. Working at night, when the body naturally wants to sleep, creates a high risk for fatigue and sleepiness during work hours and daytime insomnia. A chronic state of fatigue and sleep deprivation can come back to hurt more than work performance. When tired, you’re far more likely to make poor food choices and not because of a lack of willpower.

Working Against Circadian Rhythms
The body’s circadian rhythms control the sleep-wake cycle. These natural rhythms follow environmental signals like light cues to establish a sleep-wake pattern. Consequently, shift and night work forces the body to work against its natural rhythms.

A study published in Sleep Medicine Clinic found that three-quarters of the shift workers surveyed reported disturbed sleep, which negatively affected worker efficiency and attitude. Their unusual work schedule also changed the architecture of their sleep. Many participants regularly slept four to six hours each night rather than the recommended seven. This chronic sleep deprivation can come back to affect weight gain. As sleep, or lack thereof, affects the release of hormones that control appetite and food cravings.

Changing Hormone Levels and the Endocannabinoid System
Lack of sleep causes an increase in the release of the hunger hormone ghrelin, which means shift workers may find themselves feeling hungrier than usual while at work. At the same time, the body releases less of the satiety hormone leptin, making it easier to take in more calories than needed before feeling full. The result is a cycle of overeating that can be hard to break.

Lack of sleep also affects food choices and the reward center of the brain. Sleep deprivation activates the endocannabinoid system, which, amongst other things, affects the “high” experienced from food. With an increase in the rewards for sugary, high-fat foods, shift workers are more likely to reach for chips, soda, and candy than they are fruits and vegetables.

However, there are behaviors and environmental changes that can help aid both sleep and healthy eating habits.

How to Improve Sleep Outcomes for Shift Workers
Better food choices are easier with more, high-quality sleep. While you might not be able to change your work schedule, you can:

  • Get Comfortable: Odd sleep hours makes comfort all that much more important. A room that’s kept cool and quiet allows the mind and body to relax and separate from surroundings. For those who may struggle with sensory issues, a weighted blanket, breathable bedding, or white noise machine can help relieve restlessness and increase comfort.
  • Guard Sleep Time: For health and safety reasons, sleep time must be guarded. Make sure to set aside at least seven to eight hours for sleep and allow a little extra time to fall asleep and wake up. A consistent bedtime and wake up time can help the body adjust to a changing sleep schedule.
  • Use Naps Wisely: Naps can counteract the effects of sleep deprivation, but they should be used wisely. Long, one to two-hour naps are more effective when taken before a work shift while short ten to fifteen minutes naps work better during work breaks.

Better sleep leads to better, healthier food choices. Creating a consistent schedule that aligns with work demands can decrease on the job fatigue and overall health.

Alicia Sanchez is a researcher for the sleep science hub with a specialty in health and wellness. A Nashville native, Alicia finds the sound of summer storms so soothing that she still sleeps with recorded rain on her white noise machine. 

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