Have you ever endured an agonizing night of sleeplessness, only to feel like a bottomless pit of ravenous hunger throughout the next day?
I KNOW YOU HAVE!
Let’s break down what’s really going on here when we mistake tiredness for hunger.
Let me make one thing very clear. I love sleep. I need lots of it. I love it so much I’ve been known to fall asleep in concerts and parties and even loud restaurants when I’m tired enough.
So, when I had three babies within seven years, I knew my golden days of continuous slumber were behind me. You can also probably imagine how cranky I was after years of sporadic and inefficient quality of sleep. Furthermore, I was also hungrier. Or so I thought. Hungrier, specifically for Doritos or cookies or anything carb-laden.
Turns out there is loads of research showing a very clear connection between both quantity and quality of sleep and its effects on specific hunger hormones. Over time, chronic lack of sleep or inadequate restorative sleep can greatly decrease or increase blood levels of hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin - both key in regulating the brain’s ability to detect hunger and satiety.
Chronic sleep deprivation leads to lowered leptin levels which are stored in your fat cells. Leptin is the hunger hormone that tells your brain to message that you’re full. What’s more, I noticed a trend in my clients. Those that struggled with “not noticing hunger until completely famished” or “never feeling full”, also tended to be those who struggled in the sleep department as well.
I’ve also had clients that found themselves waking up every night in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep until they eat something.
This phenomenon interested me on two levels: from the habitual perspective as well as the physiological one.
For instance, when I was a baby, my (well-intentioned) father gave me chocolate milk in a bottle, in the middle of the night, on those occasions when I unexpectedly woke up crying, (probably in order to get much needed sleep himself). Even just those few instances embedded in my mind the idea that the way to comfort myself at night when I wake up is to eat something sweet! Before long, I was up every night, in the middle of the night, yelling “Chocka milk a ba-ba!!!!”, which was toddler talk for - “Here’s what’s going to happen, Pops. You’re going to get into that kitchen, nice and fast, grab that chocolatey milk waiting for me in a bottle, (it’s in the fridge, you can’t miss it), and pass it on. Then, and ONLY then can you go back to sleep. Got it?”
Finally, my parents figured out what was going on and put the kabosh on it, and I slowly grew out of that habit. For some, the behavior continues into adulthood and makes it difficult to self-sooth, in order to go back to sleep, without food.
Chronic stress also leads to sleep difficulties. Our cortisol levels, (stress hormones secreted from adrenal glands in conjunction with stress or crisis), naturally drop in the evening. However, for those who are sleep deprived, there are often higher residual levels of cortisol, even at night, which makes it more likely to become insulin resistant.
So, this makes sleep hygiene and sleep quantity and quality essential for self-care.
And yet for many, quality sleep often eludes us.
Sometimes this is because we’re worriers.
Sometimes it’s because we have an infant in the home.
Sometimes it’s because of menopause and related symptoms.
Sometimes it’s bad sleep habits we picked up as kids that we cling to as adults.
Sometimes it’s because of a medical condition (Restless Leg Syndrome, Sleep Apnea, etc.).
And sometimes because we’re too damn busy and stressed to sleep.
No matter what the reason, the physiological consequences are the same.
Sleep deprivation leads to a weakened mind/body connection with respect to hunger. It can alter the hormones that tell us when we’re full or hungry and can explain why so many of us feel hungry, even if our bodies don’t physically need food.
Sometimes we can feel like there is very little to do to get more or better quality of sleep just because of our life circumstances. While it may take time and trial-and-error, I really believe that striving for ways to get into a relaxation response at night is critical for epic slumbers. While some may choose melatonin or other sleep aids (always check with your doctor first), I would love to offer up some of my most effective techniques to get better quality sleep, naturally, (and to stay asleep or fall back asleep faster).
Download my Nine Natural Techniques for Epic Golden Slumbers checklist.