How your brain can sabotage weight loss

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Lack of sleep thwarts weight loss by making us want unhealthy food.

Finding ways to lose weight is a challenge. Food cravings can thwart any diet plan. A new study finds lack of sleep can be your enemy when it comes to resisting sweet, salty and fattening foods. It seems your brain can easily sabotage weight loss efforts.

Sleep deprivation activates unhealthy food response

Scientists at Roosevelt Hospital Center and Columbia University in New York studied 25 normal weight men and women.

They performed MRI of the brain while the study participants looked at images of healthy and unhealthy foods. The participants were either restricted to 4 hours of sleep for 5 consecutive days or allowed to sleep up to 9 hours.

When the group who hadn’t slept were shown unhealthy foods it activated the reward center of the brain.

Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, the study's principal investigator, explained in a press release, "The same brain regions activated when unhealthy foods were presented were not involved when we presented healthy foods. The unhealthy food response was a neuronal pattern specific to restricted sleep. This may suggest greater propensity to succumb to unhealthy foods when one is sleep restricted.”

Past studies have show lack of sleep linked to being overweight or obese

A study published January, 2012 found that lack of sleep, even for one night, can trigger hunger. The new study shows the exact pathway in the brain that activates when you haven’t had enough sleep that can easily lead to unhealthy food choices.


Getting at least 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night is emerging as an important component for weight loss.

Insomnia affects approximately 23% of the US workforce and could help explain, in part, rising rates of obesity. The cost of lack of sleep was highlighted in a study result published in the journal Sleep, September, 2011. The newest finding may be an important note for employee health and wellness programs. Offering stress reduction programs in the workplace could keep employees healthier by aiding weight loss, considering the cost of obesity.

St-Onge said the new study results …" suggest that, under restricted sleep, individuals will find unhealthy foods highly salient and rewarding, which may lead to greater consumption of those foods."

It might also be that sleep deprivation activates hormones that lead to weight gain, even for people who report no appetite when they’re tired. Mayo Clinic researchers conducted a study that was published March, 2012 that was somewhat contradictory to the current finding that lack of sleep makes us crave food.

According to the Mayo Clinic finding, sleep deprivation was linked to higher levels of the fat producing hormone leptin and lower levels of the hormone ghrelin that stimulates the appetite.

Brain imaging studies show why we crave fattening foods from lack of sleep. In this study, participants ate more fat and more food overall that was associated with lack of sleep. The finding, "Sleep restriction increases the neuronal response to unhealthy food stimuli", is presented at SLEEP 2012, the 26th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS) in Boston.

Sleep deprivation and obesity has been the target of research efforts and consistently linked. The new study suggests when we don’t sleep enough, the brain prompts us to make unhealthy food choices. The current study lends support to the importance of getting a good night’s sleep for successful weight loss.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine
June 10, 2012

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