How Not Getting Enough Sleep is Just Like Smoking Marijuana

Late-night munchies at Taco Bell

Late-night munchies at Taco Bell | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

We know it’s a good idea to get enough sleep at night. None of us want to feel like we’re fighting nap time at our desks by 10 a.m. the next morning, and we’re all typically better people when we spent the night in dreamland, not counting sheep. Common sense tells us sleep is good, but research also suggests it can lead to higher earnings and other benefits. On the flip side, scientists are finding out that not getting enough sleep truly can be a risk factor for obesity. While you might have fantastic self-control when it comes to your dietary habits, not getting enough sleep has the power to give you uncontrollable munchies – affecting your brain in the same way smoking a joint does.

Getting the munchies after smoking pot isn’t just a cultural stigma; there’s actually a chemical reaction in the brain that makes you want to eat even when you’re not hungry. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, causes an increase in the brain of a chemical called 2-AG, which induces the need to snack on Doritos and drive to Taco Bell at 1 a.m. when the chips are gone.

“We know that marijuana causes individuals to overeat when they’re not hungry,” Erin Hanlon, a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Sleep, Metabolism and Health Center, told Bloomberg. “Our findings suggest that sleep restrictions may be acting in the same manner and on the same system.”

Sleep-deprived munchies

For the purposes of the most recent experiment, Hanlon and her colleagues asked 14 healthy adults to participate in two separate 4-day sessions in the sleep lab. One session allowed the participants to sleep eight and a half hours per night, while the second session only allowed for four and half hours of shut-eye. In each session, the participants were given controlled meals for the first three days, and then led to a buffet on the fourth day where they could eat as much as they wanted – including snacks following the meal.

The study reinforced American’s love for buffets: both groups, regardless of sleep amount, ate more than necessary at the buffet, often around their total caloric needs for the entire day. But the true difference was that the sleep-deprived participants continued eating well into the afternoon, even when they’d had more than their share of food for lunch. In fact, people with less sleep ate about 300 calories more than their better-rested counterparts, mostly in snacks during the afternoon. Though the snacks and buffet had a variety of foods, the sleep-deprived group gravitated more toward the fatty foods – pizza, ice cream, chips, etc.

Less sleep, more weight

The reason, researchers found, is because the 2-AG chemical rose in the brain in the same way it does when someone smokes marijuana. In the case of the sleep-deprived participants, the levels of 2-AG rose about 33% the following day, making them want to snack on everything in sight even if they’d already had the calories they would typically need to feel full.

The end result: people who aren’t getting enough sleep on a consistent basis are more likely to gain weight, simply because their brain isn’t regulating their food cravings properly. “If you have a Snickers bar, and you’ve had enough sleep, you can control your natural response,” Hanlon told Food & Wine. “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.”

Though this might seem like common sense, not enough Americans treat sleep like an important factor to their health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 30% of adults reported they got 6 or fewer hours of sleep each night. About 44% of people ages 18 to 25, and 36% of people ages 25 to 35 reported nodding off involuntarily throughout the day, suggesting sleep deprivation is a serious issue.

“We got into a kind of rhythm in our culture where you sleep with the time you have left over,” Hanlon told The New York Times. “We’re hoping that individuals will start to think of adequate sleep as kind of an important aspect of maintaining good health, and not just as a byproduct of the day.”

The bottom line, if you don’t want to keep fighting crazy food cravings around 2 p.m., get enough sleep. And forgo the joint, too.

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