For many of us, a solid night of uninterrupted sleep is hard to come by. At its least offensive, poor sleep makes us groggy the following morning and necessitates an extra shot of espresso. After a particularly rough night of tossing and turning, though, it turns us into judgement-impaired zombies with raging appetites. You want all sugar, all the salt, all the fat.
So what gives with the crazy cravings? Here’s why poor sleep equals an out-of-control appetite, plus what you can do about it.
Your Body On Sleep Deprivation
It makes sense why we feel hungrier when we’re tired: Food is a source of energy and nutrients that our body needs to keep us running. In one small study, when young adults were sleep deprived (they slept up to 4.5 hours), they ate about 400 more calories in a day, mostly from snacks, compared to people of the same age who slept for eight hours.
In a perfect world, we’d at least crave nutrient-rich foods—like leafy greens, eggs, and fish—when we’re tired. But in reality, the opposite usually happens. When exhausted, we’re drawn to processed, “highly palatable foods” that are loaded with added sugar and fat because these foods are calorie-dense and pleasurable to eat.
Here’s more on exactly why we experience cravings after missing sleep.
1. Changes in hunger hormones
According to a 2020 meta-analysis published in Obesity Reviews, sleep-deprived adults experience significant changes in levels of leptin and ghrelin, two hormones that have appetite-regulating effects. “These changes lead to reduced feelings of fullness even after eating,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Roseanne Schnell, C.D.N. “If you have increased hunger and you don’t feel satisfied at meals, you may consume larger portions and snack excessively.”
2. Dysregulated blood sugar
Sleep and blood sugar have a complex relationship—and poor sleep can actually impact your ability to maintain normal blood sugar levels, according to the Sleep Foundation.
Specifically, one 2021 review shows that a crummy night’s sleep can lead to problems managing blood sugar that include impaired insulin sensitivity and blood sugar fluctuations, which affect how you feel both physically and mentally. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, blood sugar dysregulation is one reason that missing out on sleep makes you more prone to over-eating.
3. Increased cortisol production
Cortisol is your body’s primary stress hormone and is released in higher quantities when you’re anxious, burnt out, or under any type of stress, which can include a lack of sleep, according to research published in Sleep Science. Higher cortisol levels are associated with increased weight gain and obesity risk—and one potential reason for this is that cortisol seems to promote stress- and binge-eating.
The Downstream Effects of Poor Sleep And Eating Habits
A bottomless stomach and extra-intense cravings might sound like a short-term struggle, but if the vicious cycle of poor sleep and out-of-whack hunger becomes a regular thing, the impact adds up. In fact, The Sleep Foundation explains that chronic sleep deprivation (getting less than seven hours of rest most nights) puts you at risk not only for weight gain but also for metabolic issues like insulin resistance, which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
Unfortunately, there’s more bad news: When you haven’t gotten the sleep you need, you’ll also have less energy for physical activity and experience a drop in your metabolic rate and body temperature. Simply put, your body conserves energy when you’re tired, meaning your desire for exercise dips, as does your body’s use of calories.
Additionally, according to the Cleveland Clinic, you’ll probably experience low motivation when you haven’t slept, which means it’s hard to get yourself to participate in healthy behaviors, such as cooking yourself dinner.
How To Beat Cravings When You’re SO Tired
Eating more pleasurable, calorie-dense, and less nutritious foods might feel incredibly tempting when you’re exhausted—but doing so isn’t actually going to fix your dragging feet. While you might initially experience a lift in your energy and mood after eating sugary, carb-heavy foods, you’ll likely crash soon after and feel even more wiped due to a dip in blood sugar, says Schnell.
Obviously, sticking to a healthy eating plan when your body is craving highly processed, energy-dense foods is easier said than done. Give yourself some grace here; instead of expecting yourself to munch on veggie-packed salads all day, try to strike a balance.
Use these tips to nourish your body as best as possible while still fulfilling your desires for all things satisfying after a night of crummy sleep.
1. Choose Complex Carbs with Fiber
Carbs are your body’s preferred energy source, hence why they seem extra appealing when you’re lagging. To lift your focus and mood, Blakely says to opt for nutritious foods that contain complex carbs and fiber. These foods are digested slowly instead of quickly spiking your blood sugar. Some of the best sources? Whole grains such as oats and whole-grain bread, sweet potatoes, beans, and legumes.
Blakely also recommends satisfying your sweet tooth with fruit, which, yes, does contain sugar, but also offers lots of nutrients and fiber to boot.
2. Emphasize Protein
In addition to that fiber, protein is a must-have for promoting satiety and keeping your blood sugar levels stable. Large-scale research shows it suppresses appetite and decreases levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Plus, “proteins are needed to produce the brain neurotransmitters that make you feel good,” shares The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N.
For help with managing cravings, Blakely recommends including about 15 to 30 grams of protein in your meals and snacks. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, yogurt, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and tofu are all great sources. If you’re having trouble hitting the mark, a protein powder can help round things out.
3. Go Easy on Added Sugar
We know, we know, sugar is so appealing when you’re tired—but it really only worsens the problem. Foods that contain added sugar—such as cereal, desserts, juices, and bottled smoothies or coffee drinks—cause your blood sugar to spike and then drop abruptly, which just leaves you lethargic and hungry again.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting added sugar intake to a maximum of 25 grams per day. It’s always beneficial to follow that guideline, especially when dealing with the fallout from a rough night.
4. Eat at Regular Intervals
To prevent your blood sugar from plummeting, keep your energy more consistent, and minimize overeating, eat balanced meals and snacks every three to four hours, recommends the University of San Diego School of Medicine.
A few sample meals they recommend:
- oatmeal with fresh fruit
- an omelet with spinach
- salmon with brown rice and broccoli
- chicken breast with whole-grain noodles, tomatoes, and spinach
5. Stay Hydrated
Remember to drink up! Whether you’ve slept well or not, water is your friend and supports digestion, detoxification, and cognitive processes such as concentration, according to Johns Hopkins University. While some coffee or caffeinated tea can certainly hydrate you and help you power through, stick to about three or four eight-ounce cups per day, advises the FDA. Otherwise, you might end up with not-so-helpful symptoms such as a headache or the jitters.
6. Pay Extra Close Attention to Your Fullness and Hunger Cues
“With a lack of sleep, which causes low leptin levels, your brain tells you that you are hungry even when you don’t actually need food for energy,” explains Schnell. So, even though your body might really have all the fuel it needs, you’ll probably still want to park it on the couch with a party-sized bag of chips in your lap.
On these days, Schnell recommends really tuning into your fullness cues. “Slow down when you eat so that you don’t wind up consuming more than you realize, chew your food well, remove distractions, and enjoy the experience,” she suggests. (Here are some more tips that can help you eat more mindfully.)
Now, About That Sleep…
Surely, following the tips above can help you get through a tough day of cravings and hunger after a sleepless night—but you don’t want to be stuck in this rut day after day! Beyond maintaining a balanced diet, your number one task is to get that sleep routine in check.
A few things you can do to sleep better, according to Schnell, include:
- Establish a regular wake-sleep pattern (which means going to bed and waking at the same time, or as close to it as possible, every day)
- Avoid electronics for about 30 minutes before bed
- Limit caffeine intake after noon
- Choose nutrient-dense whole foods and eat balanced meals
- Exercise or participate in physical activity regularly
- Get some sunshine during the day, which helps regulate your circadian rhythm
When in doubt, check in with your primary care provider, a naturopath, or a dietitian to discuss different ways you can support healthy sleep and keep your routine as nutritious as possible on days when you’re feeling sluggish.