New research by scientists at Columbia University has found that the sight of unhealthy junk foods activated reward centers (which trigger craving) in the brains of study volunteers who were sleep-deprived, but the same images did not activate reward centers in the brains of the same volunteers when they well-rested.
“The results suggest that, under restricted sleep, individuals will find unhealthy foods highly salient and rewarding, which may lead to greater consumption of those foods,” said Marie-Pierre St-Onge, the lead researcher.
The new study by Marie-Pierre St-Onge and her colleagues at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center and Columbia University in New York was presented Sunday at the Associated Professional Sleep Societies annual meeting in Boston.
The Study; Methodology
For the study, the researchers performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on study participants, 25 men and women of normal weight, while they looked at images of healthy and unhealthy foods. The fMRI scans tracked blood flow to different areas of the brain.
The researchers performed the fMRI scans on the same 25 volunteers, first after they had gone five nights with restricted sleep (only four hours of sleep per night), and then again after they had had five nights of a full nine hours of sleep.
While in the fMRI scanner, the study participants were shown pictures of healthy foods (such as fruits, vegetables and oatmeal), unhealthy foods (such as candy, pepperoni pizza or other high fat junk foods), and nonfood items, such as office supplies.
The fMRI scans performed on the participants after they had suffered a loss of sleep (five nights of only four hours of sleep per night) showed that images of unhealthy foods, such as candy, pepperoni pizza or other high fat junk foods, activated (increased blood flow to) areas of the brain that are considered reward centers in these participants while they were sleep-deprived.
However, when the same people were fully rested (after five full nights of sleep), the images of unhealthy foods did not trigger the same activation of their brains’ reward centers.
“I think it’s related to cognitive control,” study author Marie-Pierre St-Onge explained. “Your guard is somewhat down when you’re tired and sleep deprived. Even though you know you probably shouldn’t eat certain foods, when you’re tired you might just decide to go for it.”
Other dietary experts said they were not surprised by the findings. Sleep-deprived individuals are drawn to junk food because “when you are fatigued, your body would want calorie-dense foods that give you quick energy,” explained Samantha Heller, registered dietician and clinical nutrition coordinator at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut, in an interview with HealthDay.
It’s best to keep healthy food options around, rather than rely on junk food for temporary bursts of energy, Ms. Heller added.
Marie-Pierre St-Onge, the study’s main author, said that the clear take-home message from her study is: get plenty of sleep — at least seven to eight hours — every night.
See related HelpingYouCare™ reports on:
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- Other Areas of Wellness: Emotional, Ethical/ Spiritual & Vocational Wellness; and
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