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Your Craving for Junk Food Grows When Sleepy

Update Date: Jun 10, 2012 06:33 PM EDT

Lack of sleep might lead you to seek out more junk food.

Viewing unhealthy food while sleep-deprived activated reward centers in the brain that were less active when people were well rested, according to a new study using brain scans to better understand the link between sleep restriction and obesity.

"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, PhD, the study's principal investigator. "Indeed, food intake data from this same study showed that participants ate more overall and consumed more fat after a period of sleep restriction compared to regular sleep. The brain imaging data provided the neurocognitive basis for those results."

Researchers from St. Luke's - Roosevelt Hospital Center and Columbia University in New York performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks blood flow in the brain, on 25 men and women of normal weights while they were shown images of healthy such as fruits, vegetables and oatmeal, and unhealthy foods including candy and pepperoni pizza. The scans were taken after five nights in which sleep was either restricted to four hours or allowed to continue up to nine hours. Results were compared.

"The same brain regions activated when unhealthy foods were presented were not involved when we presented healthy foods," said St-Onge. "The unhealthy food response was a neuronal pattern specific to restricted sleep. This may suggest greater propensity to succumb to unhealthy foods when one is sleep restricted."

Past research has found that restricted sleep leads to increased food consumption in healthy people, and that a self-reported craving for sweet and salty food increases after a period of sleep deprivation. St-Onge said the new study's results provide additional support for a role of short sleep in appetite-modulation and obesity.

The study, titled "Sleep restriction increases the neuronal response to unhealthy food stimuli," was presented today at SLEEP 2012, the 26th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS) in Boston.

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