When trying to maintain a healthy weight, most of us think of eating well and exercising. But an often forgotten component that can impact our habits is sleep. Beyond its other effects, lack of sleep can extensively alter the way your body responds to food.

What Happens Inside Your Body When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

How is sleep linked to diet? To comprehend this, the first step is understanding the physiological changes a body goes through when fatigued from lack of sleep.

Your Brain’s Reward Centers Are Heightened

Your brain’s reward centers—the putamen, nucleus accumbens, and thalamus— heighten with a lack of sleep. This increases the want for things that feel good. In turn, the late-night ice cream that is tempting on a normal night is irresistible on a night you’re tired.

Your Brain’s Decision-Making Abilities Are Dulled

By not getting your typical 7-9 hours of sleep, you’re potentially increasing your brain’s likeliness to make bad decisions. The frontal lobe of your brain plays a large role in impulse control and decision making. By losing sleep, you’re essentially dulling the activity in this lobe, making it harder to stick to healthy eating habits.

Your Metabolism Is Altered

Less sleep than usual can also affect your metabolism. Consequently, this causes it to react in ways that can affect your diet and weight.

  •  Cortisol may spike, which signals to your body that it should conserve energy.
  •  Cells may become insulin resistant. This means more sugar may remain in your bloodstream and more insulin may be produced to compensate.
  • Your body’s resting metabolic rate (RMR), the number of calories your body burns at rest, may decrease.

On the whole, these metabolism changes can encourage your body to burn fewer calories while hanging on to fat.

TV Snack

How Does Lack of Sleep Affect Your Dietary Choices And Weight?

Junk Food Seems More Enticing

As mentioned early, a lack of sleep can result in a lack of impulse control. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that sleep deprivation increases your likelihood to make poor food choices. Additionally, when fatigued, high-calorie foods can feel even more rewarding.

More Likely to Late Night Snack

It seems obvious, but the later you stay up the more likely you are to snack at night. Unhealthy snacking at night can lead to obesity, diabetes, and weight gain.

Lack of Sleep May Increase Your Appetite

Another contributing factor has to do with the “hunger hormones”. Studies have found that sleep deprivation can be linked to an increased appetite. How so?

Ghrelin is the hormone that signals to your brain when you’re hungry. Levels are typically high before you eat and low after you eat. When you miss out on sleep, your body makes more of the hormone, which makes you feel hungry.

Leptin is a hormone that tells your brain that you are full and suppresses hunger. When you’re fatigued, your body produces less leptin, which can leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied.

You May Consume More Calories

Studies confirm that people who lack sleep are more likely to intake more calories per day. Factors include increased appetite, poor food choices, or having more snacking hours in the day. These studies also show that the additional calories are most likely consumed in the form of after-dinner snacks when you would typically be asleep.

Low Motivation for Exercising

If you got zero sleep the night before, you’re probably not incredibly motivated to get a work out in. Studies link lack of sleep to a potential decrease in the amount and intensity of physical activity the following day. 

Because exercise and diet are linked in a handful of ways, this can affect how you eat. Several studies indicate that exercise or physical activity can lead to a decreased desire for fattening foods.

What to Do If a Late Night Craving Hits

Now that you know all of this, how do you stop the cycle of poor sleep and an unhealthy diet? Ideally, improving your sleep is the goal, but in the meantime, try these tips.

  • Identify the root of the craving – are you bored, emotional, or truly hungry?
  • Pinpoint your triggers – this can help you break the cycle.
  • Create a routine. Plan healthy, protein-rich meals and spread them out so you know you’re eating enough throughout the day.
  • Consider seeking out emotional support if you think this could be a contributing factor.
  •  Implement relaxation like meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, or stretching.
  • Eliminate junk food in the house. If it’s not there, it’s harder to mindlessly snack on it.
Lack of Sleep

Your Long-Term Strategy

How to Get Back on Track After a Stretch of Sleepless Nights

Don’t give up hope for a healthy sleep schedule. Try these steps to get your nights back on track. 

  • Exposing yourself to more bright light or daylight during the day can strengthen your circadian rhythm, which, in turn, makes you feel alert during the day and tired at night.
  • At night, lower the lights. It’s also essential to be aware of blue light exposure. This is emitted from smartphones and laptops and can reduce melatonin, the hormone that helps you relax and sleep.
  • Since caffeine can affect your sleep quality, try not to consume it at least 6 hours before you plan to sleep.
  • Try to establish a consistent sleep and wake schedule that your body can get used to. This may involve setting an alarm in the morning or putting yourself to sleep before you feel tired. Make adjustments gradually.
  • Because alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns and alter melatonin levels, you should consider cutting it fro your diet.
  • Create a cozy sleep environment by controlling noise, temperature, and external light.
  • Avoid eating too late in the day; it can mess with your melatonin and sleep quality.
  • Create a sleep routine that includes meditation, a warm bath, or quiet reading, as these techniques can be relaxing.
Small Changes, Big Results

You’d be surprised to find just how connected the systems of the body are. Therefore, making improvements in one area can improve your health in another. When enacting these changes, start slow and don’t be hard on yourself. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to consult your doctor when making changes to your sleep, diet, exercise, or lifestyle.


Rand McClain, D.O. wrote this article for Creations Magazine. The original article can be found here.

Author Dr. Rand

Dr. McClain has dedicated over 35 years of his personal and professional life studying nutrition, exercise, herbs and supplements and is also a Master of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

More posts by Dr. Rand

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