Sleepy brains drawn to junk food
June 10th, 2012
12:01 AM ET

Sleepy brains drawn to junk food

As any college student or shift worker will tell you, staying up all night or even just skimping on sleep can lead a person to seek out satisfying, calorie-packed foods.

An emerging body of research suggests that sleep-related hunger and food cravings, which may contribute to weight gain, are fueled in part by certain gut hormones involved in appetite. But our brain, and not just our belly, may play a role as well.

According to two small studies presented today at a meeting of sleep researchers in Boston, sleep deprivation appears to increase activity in areas of the brain that seek out pleasure - including that provided by junk food. To make matters worse, sleepiness also may dampen activity in other brain regions that usually serve as a brake on this type of craving.

Health.com: How the pros curb food cravings

In one of the studies, researchers at Columbia University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks blood flow in the brain, to compare brain activity in 25 volunteers following a normal night's sleep (about eight hours) and a night in which they were limited to just four hours.

In each case, the researchers performed the scans while showing the volunteers images of unhealthy foods interspersed with healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and oatmeal. Brain networks associated with craving and reward were more active when the participants were sleep-deprived than when they were well-rested—especially when the participants viewed the images of unhealthy foods.

"The pleasure-seeking parts of the brain were stimulated after an individual was sleep-deprived," says lead researcher Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., a research associate at the university's New York Obesity Research Center. "People went for foods like pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers and cake."

Health.com: 25 diet-busting foods you should never eat

St-Onge and other researchers working in this field suspect that tired people gravitate to high-calorie foods because their bodies and brains are seeking an extra energy boost to help them get through the day.

"We hypothesize that the restricted-sleep brain reacts to food stimuli as though it [were] food deprived," St-Onge says.

Previous studies have established a link between sleep deprivation and obesity, although it remains unclear how sleep might affect weight gain (or vice versa). In an effort to unravel the relationship, researchers have begun exploring how insufficient sleep influences hormones and appetite. Several recent studies - including one led by St-Onge - have found that people who are sleep deprived tend to snack more and consume more calories.

Hunger and cravings may not be the only factors, however. A second study presented today suggests that so-called higher-order brain functions - those that help up us weigh pros and cons and make complex choices, including about what we eat - may be compromised by a lack of sleep.

Health.com: How lack of sleep hurts your health

The study was similar to the one conducted at Columbia. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley asked 23 healthy young adults to rate their desire for various foods while undergoing fMRI. The participants expressed a stronger preference for unhealthy food when they'd been awake for 24 hours, compared to when they were well-rested.

But the brain scans added a new wrinkle: When the volunteers were sleep-deprived, their brains showed diminished activity in networks involved in decision-making, not simply increased activity in pleasure-seeking areas.

"We did see pleasure-seeking regions stimulated, but just not any more so than other regions," says Stephanie Greer, a researcher at the Berkeley Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, who led the study.

This finding suggests that tired people are drawn to fatty and high-calorie foods partly because their ability to process information and make decisions is impaired.

"Fewer subjects... took health and taste into account" when rating their food preferences after a sleepless night, Greer says.

Health.com: 7 tips for the best sleep ever

Michelle Miller, Ph.D., a sleep researcher at the University of Warwick Medical School, in the U.K., says the disparity in the two sets of findings might be explained by the severity of the sleep deprivation. The participants in the Columbia study got four hours of sleep, whereas those in the Berkeley study got no sleep at all.

Pleasure-seeking and impaired decision-making both may play a role in food cravings, Miller says, but the latter might become more important as sleep deprivation worsens.

St-Onge and Greer presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Both studies will need to be confirmed in future research. They were on the small side - which isn't unusual for fMRI studies, Miller points out - and the patterns seen in fMRI studies don't always translate into real-world behavior.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

soundoff (111 Responses)
  1. td

    Cheeseburgers are junk food? Dump the fake white bread and your looking at a great source of protein.

    June 11, 2012 at 08:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • tesla1908

      I was thinking the same thing.

      June 11, 2012 at 08:30 | Report abuse |
    • Kerry

      Not if they use beef slime, which they all admit to doing. A grilled steak would be a lot more beneficial than fried slime burger.

      June 11, 2012 at 09:30 | Report abuse |
    • JuliaH

      Every vegetarian or health freak I've ever met always looks UGLY.

      June 11, 2012 at 09:52 | Report abuse |
    • mike

      Great source of protein does not mean it's good for you. Example: if you only use 85% lean and pan-cook it so the fat does drip away, you're loading up on a ton of garbage with that protein.

      June 11, 2012 at 10:20 | Report abuse |
    • mike

      Meant to say "does NOT drip away".

      June 11, 2012 at 10:21 | Report abuse |
    • k9zgirl

      @ JuliaH ..what an ugly statement.

      June 11, 2012 at 10:25 | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      i have a weight problem...can't weight to eat.

      June 11, 2012 at 11:27 | Report abuse |
    • Victor

      Julie...you are a really ignoriant person. First off...you're wrong about the fact that only ugly people eat healthy...and, as an example, look at most of the stars in Hollywood who have nutritionets to assist them.

      June 11, 2012 at 12:44 | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      So Victor, I'll amend what Julie said. Only ugly people eat vegetarian food, unless your wealthy. Those that have money can look good eating vegetarian, because their ugly nutritionist prepared it for them.

      How's that look, hero?

      June 11, 2012 at 15:27 | Report abuse |
    • nfer

      I think I could find some ugly meat eaters....

      June 12, 2012 at 08:33 | Report abuse |
    • VladT

      Yes, Kerry.....all that Pink Slime is the junk food, and that's what they meant. Get over it already, that is not what the article is about, and you know it ( at least, I hope you know it ). However, thanks for taking the time to get off your high horse to speak with us at eye level

      June 12, 2012 at 09:41 | Report abuse |
  2. Sleepie

    I believe there is truth in this. I tend to want to eat more when I am sleep deprived. Not just unhealthy foods but larger servings. At the time I think it will give me more energy. In the end it just leaves me feeling worse.

    June 11, 2012 at 08:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Rock

    Meatball pizza and calamari rings please

    June 11, 2012 at 08:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TODAY

      I'll take just calamari rings...ANYTIME :))

      June 11, 2012 at 10:14 | Report abuse |
  4. Conrad Shull

    The third paragraph seems to imply that "healthy" eating is less that pleasurable and the normal bodily state of affairs is to shun pleasurable eating. Agenda anyone?

    June 11, 2012 at 08:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • AGuest9

      How many grossly overweight people were unhappy before they were grossly overweight?

      June 11, 2012 at 09:32 | Report abuse |
    • AGuest9

      How many grossly over-weight people also felt bad about themselves prior to becoming grossly over-weight?

      June 11, 2012 at 09:34 | Report abuse |
    • AGuest9

      More CNN/WordPress issues.

      June 11, 2012 at 09:36 | Report abuse |
    • NotBuyingIt

      Well technically eating neither needs to be nor is supposed to be "pleasurable". Boiled down to the basics, it's just refueling to keep the body growning/going. The effect that sugary and fatty foods have on our brains is likely a holdover from times when food scarcity was an issue and being able to store fat for the lean times could be essential to our survival.

      I don't think the fact that the article references the effects that high sugar/fat foods have on our brains is meant to be construed as inversely stating that healthy food is supposed to be less than pleasurable, much less that this is part of some insidious agenda to "shun pleasurable eating"...

      June 11, 2012 at 11:16 | Report abuse |
  5. Matt in Oregon

    As a former nightshift worker I can testify that there is some truth to this. I always felt like having something really rich to eat after getting off in the morning. Good thing I was usually too tired to do anything but crash.

    June 11, 2012 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. soulCatcher

    "..dramitically reduced decision making...Ah, this article confirms to me that sleep deprivation and junkfood just a form of mind control.

    June 11, 2012 at 08:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Rich

    Pretty sure they mean like McDonalds, Burger King, Jack's, Hardee's etc Burger's themselves, when homemade in my opinion at any rate, are not all that bad for you.

    June 11, 2012 at 08:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mike

      Depends. Grilled lean beef isn't all bad. Pan cooked is pretty fatty though.

      June 11, 2012 at 10:29 | Report abuse |
    • UFC iTard

      fat isn't bad for you, refined carbs are.

      June 11, 2012 at 14:13 | Report abuse |
    • Orly?

      @UFC iTard

      Correction: not all fat is bad for you.

      Funnily enough, you made the distinction between refined carbs and complex carbs (fruit, veggies, whole grains). Might as well make the distinction between unsaturated (good) and saturated (not exactly bad, but consume in moderation) fat.

      June 12, 2012 at 15:34 | Report abuse |
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    June 11, 2012 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Please

    I want that burger. Now. And I don't care that it's before 9 am. Damn you, CNN!

    June 11, 2012 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. rtbrno65

    You know what else is drawn to junk food? People who like junk food.

    June 11, 2012 at 09:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. GasPredictor

    This study, and especially the headline, explains a lot. Sleepy brains crave junk. We are becoming a sleepy-brained society, craving empty calories, empty entertainment, empty new sources. Seriously, I think this warrants investigation. Do people crave vacuous TV shows and music because they are sleep-deprived? Are sleep-deprived people more interested in the latest celebrity gossip than in man-made disasters? Are sleep-deprived people more prone to political intransigence than to compromise?

    June 11, 2012 at 09:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. ok

    I don't know about all the other stuff you're asking about, but I think this article is about food. We all need more sleep, that is for sure.

    June 11, 2012 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
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      July 3, 2012 at 06:21 | Report abuse |
  13. AS

    Can't believe someone actually wasted money on a study like this. I am not overweight but I know I am tired when all I want is a Coke and a Snickers bar.

    June 11, 2012 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Victor

      Congrats...you are the one person on every message board that says "I don't believe somebody actually wasted money on this." Today you are that guy!

      June 11, 2012 at 12:49 | Report abuse |
  14. Jay

    Though there is truth to their assertion, 25 volunteers is not a large enough study to make such sweeping conclusions.

    June 11, 2012 at 09:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JuliaH

      No there isn't. There's NOT one iota of truth to this crap and I'm sick of the propaganda being forced onto us by these people. I eat fastfood a lot (aka "junk food") and I am a lot healthier than most people. Why does CNN think it has a right to tell us what to eat? People are sick of this.

      June 11, 2012 at 09:55 | Report abuse |
    • NotBuyingIt

      LOL @ JuliaH

      Your study of one (based on the simplistic assumption of "I do X and Y happens therefor Z is incorrect for everyone") holds considerably less weight than a study of 25 volunteers.

      If you think that the majority of people who "eat fast food a lot" are not unhealthy BECAUSE of what they eat, then you're just being willfully ignorant...

      June 11, 2012 at 11:02 | Report abuse |
    • PS

      Right, Julia... because for you, everyone should fit in one box – Jack in the Box.

      June 12, 2012 at 17:05 | Report abuse |
  15. Lance in SC

    Extensive research on this very topic has already been done by an Austrailian physician Karen Wolfe, and it was published over 3 years ago. These findings are important but simply confirms her work...it certainly is not a new or original peice of research.

    June 11, 2012 at 10:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mike

      Just like someone new discovers that high fructose corn syrup doesn't metabolize properly and screws up your body's reaction to sweets in general every couple of years. Yet, it always gets buried.

      June 11, 2012 at 10:31 | Report abuse |
  16. I'M SLEEPY

    I know when I wake up from my nap, I will want one of those cheeseburgers.

    June 11, 2012 at 10:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Amy

    Really, somebody bothered to do a study? All they needed to do was ask ME.

    June 11, 2012 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mano

      This is great! I breastfeed aomlst anywhere and I'm sometimes a little concerned someone will ask me to leave. I think just having this card would give a woman more confidence. Great idea. P.S. What time is the Doula meeting tomorrow? Are non-doulas allowed to attend? Thanks!

      September 12, 2012 at 04:37 | Report abuse |
  18. Laura S.

    I used to deliver morning newspapers for extra income, and I can affirm that a cheese burger and fries from McD's will never taste as good as it does at four-thirty in the morning after six hours of sleep. But as always with studies like this, the question begs. What are we supposed to do about it? Eat right and get plenty of sleep? Can my Grandmother have co-authorship on this paper, because she told me the same thing forty years ago.

    June 11, 2012 at 10:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Scott Pilgrim

    Makes sense. Besides, when you're tired, who wants to waste the energy on cooking? Glad I started watching what I eat.

    June 11, 2012 at 10:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. allaboutbuff

    Big deal- I get great, deep sleep for 7+ hours a day and still I eat what I want- human beings just love satisfying foods, period, sleep or no sleep. I am convinced that doctors and medical professionals are throwing darts to try and find connections to things when maybe it is just US as human beings who are attracted to pleasurable things!!! DUH.

    June 11, 2012 at 11:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Kevin

    Anyone who has seen my 1am fridge raids knows I have a little bit of a problem....

    June 11, 2012 at 11:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Texan

    Man that burger looks good! I know what I'm eating for lunch today.

    June 11, 2012 at 11:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. YeahBut...

    Evolution has designed us to crave fats and sugars as they were/are plentiful calorie sources when food was scarce. Today's fast food/processed food world is no more than a manipulation of how we were designed. The obvious outcome is obesity. "NotBuyingIt" is absolutely on the money. Food is meant to be fuel, and we are are an overfed (caloric intake), yet malnourished (vitamins, minerals) society. Unfortunately, what our hybridized, sugary foods are doing to us metabolically is causing a lot more harm than not looking good naked.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Victor

    I'm sorry to see all the apologists on this message board for their unhealthy lifestyles. There are few facts in science, but one of the facts that we know is how most processed "food" in the American diet is having not only a major impact on weight but also leading to an incredible increase in diabeties, cancer, heart attack, stroke, joint pains and disabilities, and on and on and on. You can sit here and give free advertising for the food companies, but it's not going to make you any healthier. If you have any question, watch the HBO show "Weight of a Nation" and, unless you are a lobbyist for ADM or a truly ignorant person, you will be convinced.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Yeahhaha

      I don't often take food advise but when I do, its from message boards on CNN. After all: if Vick the nutcase says its true, it must be the case.

      June 11, 2012 at 15:30 | Report abuse |
    • VladT

      Yep, Victor.....I eat proceesed foods mixed with fruit and veggies, and I exercise, so I guess since I am in great shape based on recent blood tests, I guess your "absolution" beliefs were just debunked. Good try, though, and here, let me help...
      OCCUPY EATOCRACY!!!!!!!!

      June 12, 2012 at 09:51 | Report abuse |
    • Orly?

      @ VladT

      Thanks, dude! Not sure what I would have done today without your personal anecdotal evidence debunking those pesky studies...

      June 12, 2012 at 13:19 | Report abuse |
  25. soulCatcher

    They probably thought of this study watching the Simpsons.

    mmmmm Donuts...whah?

    June 11, 2012 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Moo

    As a former cow, I can tell you many people are drawn to me late at night. Why do you think cow tipping is so popular?

    June 11, 2012 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Annie

    What is unhealthy food? Real meat protein or chemicals that are added to food to make it taste like real food? I stay away from the second and I eat a lot of natural, how nature intended food: it seems to work very well. No diets, thin body, energy without diets and starvation. Read the ingredients, if they sound like real food, buy it, eat it and enjoy it as much as you want.

    June 12, 2012 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Robin

    So it's not because I simply am weak-willed, susceptible to the McDonald's commercials and otherwise defective as a human being. There is a REAL, PHYSICAL reason I crave chips at the end of the day and can't seem to resist snacking! All these years I have been chastising myself for being weak and failing to maintain my discipline. Now I can replace all those ugly thoughts with "Your brain is tired. Get some sleep." I think I'll put that on the chip bag and see if it works!

    June 12, 2012 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Niles Wess

      Love it I may just do the same, or at least write it on the white board on my fridge

      June 12, 2012 at 15:17 | Report abuse |
    • Orly?

      Two extra hours of sleep is two hours of no snacking!

      Even if there is really a correlation between lack of sleep and desire to stuff face with garbage, I don't think that the article is presenting that as a means to decrease personal responsibility. Fatties still have no one to blame but themselves.

      June 12, 2012 at 15:19 | Report abuse |
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  29. Niles Wess

    This is something that I have been all to guilty of. It's so easy for me to come home late and grab a handful of oreos and watch tv before going to sleep. I've had a sweet tooth my entire life and when you add exhaustion into the mic its all bad. I have recently started drinking healthy energy drinks before I get home from work so that I dont come home and make good decisions. Thanks for the post it was really interesting to read about how lack of sleep effects our decisions making processing.

    June 12, 2012 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Orly?

      Sounds like you're taking steps in the right direction. Might I suggest not buying Oreos though? After all, if you don't have them then you can't eat them.

      June 12, 2012 at 15:25 | Report abuse |
  30. Burt

    Yes, sleep your life away.

    June 14, 2012 at 08:56 | Report abuse | Reply
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  32. P

    Maybe craving junk food is mental. Our brain thinks of junk food and the wonderful taste, which triggers our salivary glands and makes us crave for it. People can try to switch the way they think and focus more on the consequences of what will happen if they eat something that is not nutritious. Hopefully that way people can prevent from eating unhealthy foods.

    June 22, 2012 at 11:53 | Report abuse | Reply
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  34. Charles

    Kind of bad news for me since I'm always tired, haha. However, there are some good supplements out there with purported cholesterol-lowering effects. For example, beta-sitosterol received an evidence grade "A" from Natural Standard for hypercholesterolemia. With any drug or supplement, it's best to consult a doctor before trying anything. However, I think preventative medicine is the key to good health and this supplement is usually well tolerated for usage up to six months. Not a bad starting block for good health and avoiding those sleepy time hunger bouts.
    Note: These postings are my own and do not necessarily represent Natural Standard’s positions, strategies or opinions

    August 10, 2012 at 14:46 | Report abuse | Reply
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    "Food from heaven" -future is soon here

    August 20, 2012 at 04:29 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.