Junk Food Yummier After Poor Sleep

Sleep deprivation increases peoples brain activity response to unhealthy food

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) After yet another night when you didn't get the sleep you really needed, do you find yourself making an extra trip to the vending machines? The two experiences may be related.

A recent, unpublished study presented at a conference has provided evidence that not getting enough sleep may make junk food look more enticing.

"Get sufficient sleep each night."

Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, of the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital in New York, led the two-part study involving 25 men and women of normal weight.

For one part, the participants were restricted to four hours of sleep a night for five nights straight. During the second part, the participants were allowed nine hours of sleep each night for five nights.

Following each set of five days, the participants were shown images of healthy and unhealthy foods while their brains were being examined with functional MRIs.

The healthy food included images of fruits and vegetables and oatmeal, for example, while some of the unhealthy food included images of candy or pepperoni pizza. The participants were also shown images of nonfood items in the form of office supplies.

The researchers found that the brains of the participants responded differently to the images of unhealthy food after they had been sleep-deprived for five days.

When the participants viewed the unhealthy food while sleep deprived, there was more activity in seven different areas of the brain which did not appear when they viewed the healthier options.

These regions of the brain were not activated for any images when the participants had had sufficient sleep.

"The unhealthy food response was a neuronal pattern specific to restricted sleep," said St-Onge. "This may suggest greater propensity to succumb to unhealthy foods when one is sleep-restricted."

St-Onge said it appears that unhealthy food is more attractive when a person has not had a sufficient amount of sleep.

"The results suggest that, under restricted sleep, individuals will find unhealthy foods highly salient and rewarding, which may lead to greater consumption of those foods," St-Onge said. "Indeed, food intake data from this same study showed that participants ate more overall and consumed more fat after a period of sleep restriction compared to regular sleep."

The study was presented June 10 at the 26th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Boston. Because the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, its results should be regarded as preliminary and still require review by researchers in the field.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. No conflicts of interest were noted.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 7, 2012
Last Updated:
October 22, 2012