When it comes to building a link between exhaustion and junk food, there has to be as much anecdotal evidence as the day is long. Who among us hasn’t ordered a stack of pizzas during an all-night study session or picked up burgers for dinner after an especially long day at the office? But now there’s official research to back it all up. According to new research conducted at Columbia University and presented at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleep deprivation can activate the parts of your brain that seek out pleasure (read: delicious calorie-packed treats) while shutting down those rational parts that know you’re not even really that hungry.
CNN reports that Columbia University researchers studied 25 volunteers, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare brain activity via blood flow after a night of normal sleep and after a night with only four hours of sleep. The volunteers were shown pictures of healthy food interspersed with pictures of junk food, and (to the likely surprise of absolutely no one) sleep-deprived volunteers were more strongly governed by brain areas associated with cravings and rewards and acted accordingly:
"The pleasure-seeking parts of the brain were stimulated after an individual was sleep-deprived," says lead researcher Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., a research associate at the university's New York Obesity Research Center. "People went for foods like pepperoni pizza, cheeseburgers and cake."
According to the report, a similar study was conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, where volunteer students were kept awake for 24 hours and asked to rate various foods. The results of that study were similar to those at Columbia. St-Onge and her research team think this may have a lot to do with a person’s self-preservation instincts:
St-Onge and other researchers working in this field suspect that tired people gravitate to high-calorie foods because their bodies and brains are seeking an extra energy boost to help them get through the day.
"We hypothesize that the restricted-sleep brain reacts to food stimuli as though it [were] food deprived," St-Onge says.
It may also help to explain a previously established link between sleep deprivation and weight gain. Still, given the small volunteer sample group, the results of these studies will need to be confirmed with further research.
But in the meantime, what we want to know is how the restaurant industry can get in on this? We already have fast food franchises and convenience stores that are open 24 hours, and Taco Bell spearheaded the charge with its Fourth Meal ad campaign (because who doesn’t need an extra meal after midnight?), but surely there’s more that can be done besides simply being open and available. Perhaps this is one situation where social media can get even more involved. It’s impossible to study or work after midnight without a few surreptitious Facebook or Twitter checks – offering late night flash deals could be a savvy way to tap into cravings and convince consumers that an eleventh hour burrito run would be the perfect way to recharge.