If there’s anything more frustrating than spending a night tossing and turning, it’s battling the fatigue, crankiness, and brain fog you inevitably experience the next day. Somehow you have to power through your everyday tasks when all you really want is a nice long nap. And maybe a doughnut. Aaaand some fries with lunch. Ordering a pizza for dinner sounds good, too… You’re not sure why, but for some reason your tired brain is totally hung up on junk food—and your will power is nowhere to be found.
It’s not a random occurrence! Experts now know that lack of #sleep can have a profound impact on your appetite—and ultimately, your weight. In 2012, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota found that sleep-deprived subjects consumed an average of 549 extra calories per day. And it doesn’t take long for those additional calories to register on the scale. A 2013 study conducted at the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado, Boulder, revealed that people who slept just five hours a night during the workweek and had unlimited access to food gained an average of two pounds during the two-week study.
That’s partly because missed Zzzs disrupt the levels of ghrelin, a hormone which stimulates hunger. Lost sleep also lowers levels of the hormone leptin, which signals fullness, says Kenneth P. Wright, Jr., Ph.D., who led the University of Colorado study. “There is also evidence that sleep loss affects how the brain responds to food,” he notes. For example, a 2013 study of sleep-deprived people published in Nature Communications revealed increased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to rewards—like food. According to the nature study, lack of sleep also impaired activity in the brain’s frontal lobe, which governs complex decision-making.
In short, if you haven’t gotten enough sleep, high-calorie food becomes even more enticing, and you’re less equipped to resist it.
Studies show that sleep-deprived people tend to crave foods high in carbs and fat, though researchers aren’t sure why. “It may be that we seek them out because they’re comforting,” says Dr. Wright. Carbs may be particularly enticing when you’re sluggish because they’re a quick energy source, he adds.
Fortunately, there are ways to fight the hunger-fueling effects of sleep deprivation. Keep these tips in mind the next time you’re recovering from a night spent tossing and turning:
Eat a protein-rich breakfast. When you need to kill cravings, protein is your go-to nutrient. A 2011 study from the University of Missouri showed that an a.m. meal high in protein increases satisfaction and reduces hunger throughout the day. “Eggs are an excellent choice because they’re very filling,” says Sally Kuzemchak, R.D., a dietitian based in Columbus, Ohio. To get your carb fix, add a slice of whole grain toast. (Unlike refined carbs, whole grains contain filling fiber.) Not an egg fan? Greek yogurt, nuts and nut butters, and cottage cheese are also great sources of protein.
Skip sugary coffee drinks. The combo of caffeine and sugar will certainly perk you up—for a little while, anyway. Unfortunately, it will just make you crave more and more sugar, says Kuzemchak. “The same is true for artificial sweeteners, which are even sweeter than sugar!” she says. Her recommendation: a latte, which has about a cup of protein-rich milk in it, with a dusting of cocoa, vanilla powder, or cinnamon for flavor.
Distract yourself. When a craving hits, something as simple as playing a computer game can get your mind off food. When researchers at Plymouth University in the UK asked people who were experiencing cravings to play Tetris for three minutes, the subjects reported a 24 percent drop in their desire for food. The study authors suspect the game prevented people from visualizing the treat they wanted, which eased the craving.
Schedule a workout. Yes, exercising is probably the last thing you feel like doing when you’re overtired, but it may help you resist junk food. A study published earlier this year in the journal PLOS One revealed that a 15-minute brisk walk reduced people’s cravings for sugary snacks.