I bumped into a friend at a neighborhood coffee shop a few mornings ago. Normally she drinks a skim milk latte, but this morning her coffee was laced with chocolate and topped with a cushion of whipped cream. As we sat down to drink our coffee, she bit into a giant piece of coffee cake.
"I can't stop eating," she said between mouthfuls. "And I know it's because I haven't slept in three nights. Tom [her husband] has a cold and snores all night like an erupting volcano. Our house guest is in the spare bedroom, so there is nowhere I can go to get away from the noise. My willpower is shot. I think I gained five pounds in the last three days."
Although snoring spouses have not made it onto the list of common causes of weight gain, sleeplessness, whether caused by a noisy bed partner, 3 a.m. anxiety, jet lag, or shift work may have a disastrous effect on eating. Anyone who has endured even a few nights of restricted sleep knows this. The overwhelming fatigue and fuzzy-headedness that accompanies too few hours of sleep can induce a feeling of helplessness when confronted with tempting foods. The willpower, the motivation to stay on a diet, and the guilt at not staying on track can all disappear.
"I can't help myself," my client, who was a new associate in a large law firm, complained. "Sometimes I get only three or four hours sleep because of my workload, and I keep stuffing food in my mouth. I could not even tell you what I eat, except that it is probably chocolate, cookies and potato chips."
Many research studies have placed a scientific foundation beneath the countless anecdotes about sleep deprivation and overeating, especially among people suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, such as shift workers. Now there is new evidence on how the brain may be involved in the overeating following lack of sleep. According to a paper published in the April issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by St-Onge, McReynolds, Trivedi, et. al, brain activity in the areas associated with reward and pleasure changed after sleep deprivation.
In this study, volunteers spent six days sleeping their normal nine hours a night, and six days sleeping only four hours a night. After each phase of the study, the researchers presented the volunteers with pictures of tempting foods and then measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The reward and pleasure areas of brains became active following the period of sleep restriction, but not when the volunteers slept normally.
These results may explain why my friend consumed 500+ calories of whipped-cream topped coffee and cake that morning. Perhaps her brain was telling her to do this, and neither her willpower nor self-discipline could help her defeat the activity of her sleepy brain pushing her toward these poor food choices.
The researchers didn't actually measure food intake per se, or whether it shifted from healthy to unhealthy foods when the volunteers were sleep deprived. But of course, all of us who have suffered from sleep deprivation know what the answer would have been had the measurements been made. If you can't have good sleep, then "feel good" food is often the next best substitute.
The obvious solution is to get more sleep, but this seems to be unattainable for many Americans. The next best solution is to figure out how to prevent the brain from pushing unhealthy but yummy food choices onto the sleepy eater. This means overcoming the brain-generated impulse to eat fatty foods like fried chicken, bacon cheeseburgers, French fries, pizza, or doughnuts.
Normally we try not to give in to our impulses; we don't walk out of museum with a Monet tucked under our arm because we like water lilies or run a red light just because there are no cars on the street. But the impulses to eat the wrong foods are harder to resist. Giving in to an irresistible treat is not going to put you in jail or provide a moving violation ticket. The weight gain won't show up for a few days anyway, and you still may be too sleepy to care.
But if chronic sleepiness is unavoidable, weight gain will also be unavoidable unless strategies are put in place to control the impulse to overeat.
The simplest strategy is to remove oneself from temptation. Have a friend order your coffee so you won't stand at the counter wondering how many doughnuts you should buy. Avoid the snack aisles in the convenience store, or don't go into those stores at all since most of the shelf space is occupied by foods you really should not be eating.
Bargain with yourself. If your brain is demanding something sweet or crunchy, substitute low or fat-free snacks for the more obviously fattening ones. Barbecued rice crackers may not taste quite as good as barbecued potato chips, but they have far fewer calories. Cherry Twizzlers don't have the mouthfeel of chocolate, but they last longer in the mouth and are very low in fat. A chocolate, whipped cream mocha confection tastes wonderful, but a large coffee with frothed skim milk and a sprinkling of brown sugar and cinnamon on the foamed milk will save you hundreds of calories, unnecessary fat, and still give you caffeine.
Exercise. Even a few minutes of intense physical activity can help drive the impulse to overeat out of your system. By elevating your body temperature, increasing oxygen flow through your brain, and sweating, your sleepiness can diminish, and so will the impulse to overeat.
Nap for 10 minutes. If you can find the time, a short nap can refresh your mind and body and drive away eating temptations.
The perfect solution is restorative sleep. But until you are able to get enough sleep, try these suggestions. They may help.
As for my friend with the snoring husband... I wonder if she has tried wearing sound-blocking headphones?
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