Got Munchies? Get More Sleep

Lack of sleep targets endocannabinoid system and mimics marijuana by increasing hunger and junk food cravings.


Lack of sleep could be leading people to eat as if they're stoned.

According to a new study from the University of Chicago Medical Center in Illinois, sleepless nights could lead to greater hunger during the day along with a strong desire for junk food that mimics "munchies," or the hunger that follows marijuana consumption.

In this study, 14 healthy men and women in their 20s slept under observation in the university's Clinical Research Center. The subjects first received about 7.5 hours of sleep a night for four days and then about four hours of sleep a night for the same amount of time. The researchers observed the subjects' hunger patterns and chemical responses during these four-day sessions.

When getting less sleep, subjects craved junk food just two hours after eating a large meal that provided 90 percent of their daily calorie needs. The subjects also ate twice as many fatty snacks and reported high levels of cravings.

“We found that sleep restriction boosts a signal that may increase the hedonic aspect of food intake, the pleasure and satisfaction gained from eating,” lead study author Erin Hanlon, a University of Chicago research associate in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism, said in a press release. “Sleep restriction seems to augment the endocannabinoid system, the same system targeted by the active ingredient of marijuana, to enhance the desire for food intake."

The chemical endocannabinoid2-arachidonoylglycerol, or AG-2, is most active in the human body at around 12:30 p.m. However, when the subjects slept fewer hours, AG-2 levels remained high until evening, causing greater cravings and junk food consumption.

According to study commentary by Frank Scheer, a neuroscientist at Harvard University’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, these findings imply that lack of sleep could "cause changes in the hedonic aspects of food consumption" and that increase in AG-2 could cause people to overeat.

“If you have a Snickers bar, and you’ve had enough sleep, you can control your natural response,” Hanlon said. “But if you’re sleep deprived, your hedonic drive for certain foods gets stronger and your ability to resist them may be impaired. So you are more likely to eat it. Do that again and again, and you pack on the pounds.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep a day. About 30 percent of Americans sleep less than seven hours a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Inadequate sleep has been attributed to a higher likelihood of obesity, high blood pressure, depression and other diseases. The CDC has declared lack of sleep as a "public health problem."

This study was published March 1 in the journal SLEEP.

The National Center for Research Resources, Department of Defense, Medical College of Wisconsin and University of Chicago Institute for Translational Medicine funded this research.

No conflicts of interest were reported.