Are "Sleep Munchies" Real? Fatigue Could Explain Our Midnight Snacking Habits

I am a very competitive person, so it's difficult for me to fess up to being bad at something — but here goes: I kind of suck at sleeping. On average, I likely net five or fewer hours of sleep per night, and, according to a new study in the journal Sleep, that apparently also makes me more prone to the "sleep munchies." As in, yes, the "sleep munchies" are real, and the amount of sleep you are getting (or, rather, not getting) could be responsible for them.

Here's the deal: NPR's The Salt recently pointed to this new study to explain why snacking at night is so darn hard to resist. For me personally, I've never met a midnight bowl of cereal I didn't like. But why do I crave cereal so late in the evening in the first place? Well, science suggests that fatigue from lack of sleep sparks a physiological reaction that stimulates hunger and, subsequently, snacking. To be more specific, getting less than five hours of sleep per night activates the body's endocannabinoid (eCB) system, "a key component of hedonic pathways involved in modulating appetite and food intake," explain the study's authors. Basically, sleep deprivation could be causing me to want to snack late at night as well as during the day.

To come to this conclusion, researchers placed two groups of healthy young adults on different sleep schedules, with one group sleeping their normal eight and a half hours per night and the other being restricted to only four and a half hours per night. The participants' calorie-consumption during this time was carefully monitored, and they were provided a solid supply of buffet-style meals and snacks — think candy and chips in the latter category, aka prime late-night snacking material.

The results? Sure enough, sleep deprived participants couldn't resist a bit of additional noshing. "We found that sleep restriction boosts a signal that may increase the hedonic aspect of food intake," Erin Hanlon, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago Medical Center and one of the study's authors, told The Salt, adding that the changes in sleep "could be driving intake for more palatable foods." This isn't to food shame anyone; it is, however, always useful to know what your body is trying to tell you, since it can sometimes send mixed signals. If you're craving snacks late at night, it might actually be an indication that you need to sleep more.

The science behind this is pretty fascinating. If you recall, sleep deprivation activates the body's endocannabinoid system. In particular, sleep deprivation disrupts the daily rhythm of a specific endocannabinoid known as 2-AG. Surely by now you've picked up on the similarity between these terms and another word often linked to late-night snacking: cannabis.

Yep, I'm definitely hinting at marijuana munchies. We've all seen the movies right? The ones in which someone gets high from smoking the ganja and ravenously raids the pantry? It's kind of the same idea. Being sleep deprived causes a reaction in the body that makes food even more appealing, essentially kicking cravings into high gear. (My life is making so much sense right now.)

While there's still much work to be done in the realm of research on how much fatigue affects our appetites and eating behavior, this study further backs the already abundant evidence that sleep is majorly beneficial for the body. After all, healthy brain function, fostering emotional well-being, lowering your risk of certain chronic conditions and diseases, and helping to maintain an optimal balance of hormones, all for getting at least eight hours of sleep per night? Sounds like a great deal to me!

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