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Sleep Restriction Activates Brain Centres That Regulate Appetite

Regular readers will be well aware of the emerging evidence that quality and amount of sleep can have profound effects on eating behaviour and may well be an important factor in the development of obesity.

A study by Marie-Pierre St-Onge and colleagues from Columbia University, New York, in a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine the effect of sleep restriction on brain regions sensitive to food stimuli.

The researchers studied 30 healthy, normal-weight men and women for a 2-phase inpatient crossover study in which they spent either 4 h/night (restricted sleep) or 9 h/night (habitual sleep) in bed.

Overall neuronal activity in response to food stimuli was significantly greater after restricted sleep than after habitual sleep, particularly in areas associated with reward, cognitive processing, decision-making, and self-control, including the putamen, nucleus accumbens, thalamus, insula, and prefrontal cortex.

The findings of this study link restricted sleep and susceptibility to food stimuli and are consistent with the notion that reduced sleep may lead to greater propensity to overeat.

“These changes associated with reduced sleep apparently affect brain regions known to be linked to motivation and desire and may indicate an increased propensity to seek food in individuals who are not getting enough sleep. These actions, in a world where food is readily accessible, would promote weight gain. Overall, these findings suggest that changes in neuronal activity in response to food stimuli after insufficient sleep are precursors to energy balance regulation mechanisms in the brain.”

Certainly more evidence that lack of sleep may be driving those cravings and impulsive eating that could be contributing to weight gain.

Edmonton, Alberta

ResearchBlogging.orgSt-Onge MP, McReynolds A, Trivedi ZB, Roberts AL, Sy M, & Hirsch J (2012). Sleep restriction leads to increased activation of brain regions sensitive to food stimuli. The American journal of clinical nutrition PMID: 22357722



  1. Well, given the fact that the main symptom of low blood sugar is sleepiness, it’s no wonder that people tend to eat when they’re tired. And actually eating does give you a boost of energy even when you’re tired for non-hunger related reasons.

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  2. I’m curious about the effects of more typical sleep deprivation (missing 1-2 hrs sleep/night). Do you suspect a cut-off or dose-response relationship? Love your blog, Miranda

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  3. I’m curious about the effects of more typical sleep deprivation (missing 1-2 hrs sleep/night). Do you suspect a cut-off or dose-response relationship? Love your blog.

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  4. This is an interesting subject however, the which came fisrt issue comes to my mind. Does the sleep problems produce the weight gain or does the weight gain produce the sleep problems. It would be very beneficial to find out if weight lose surgery treats sleep problems or if treating the sleep problems treats the weight problem. As yet I have not seen any information to that effect. Thank you.

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  5. Having been a shift worker when I was younger and had sleep problems later in life, this rings quite true to me. It was especially noticeable on the night shift. This is just anecdotal, of course, but I can recall intense cravings for rich, “comfort” food, especially in the middle of the shift (3-5 a.m.) when the urge to sleep hits you the hardest. And the nursing staff were always ordering huge takeout meals or having unit potlucks.

    I can’t say I noticed that the night staff were any heavier overall compared to the day and evening shifts, but they were definitely more focused on food.

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