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The Surprising Connection Between Your Sleep and Snack Habits

Anytime you have a less-than-ideal night’s sleep, you probably notice some side effects. You’re fatigued, cranky and can’t concentrate. But you may not know that your lack of sleep could also affect your snacking habits.

That’s because one of the key functions of sleep is to restore your body’s natural processes. “Your hunger hormones need you to sleep so they can function properly,” said Lauren Turilli, a registered dietitian at Banner Health.

Here’s how your sleep habits affect your snacking

Sleep influences two key hormones linked to your appetite:

  • Ghrelin makes you feel hungry, and poor sleep increases this hormone
  • Leptin makes you feel full, and poor sleep decreases this hormone

So, when you don’t sleep well, you’re more likely to feel hungry.

But why does this hunger lead to more snacking? Why don’t we crave, say, a healthy salad topped with nuts and avocado?

Turilli explains that when your body feels hungry, your brain signals you to grab foods that increase energy. “Often, these foods are high in refined sugars and fat, which gives you a short-term energy burst,” she said. “This usually results in energy spikes that cause you to feel hungry again sooner than usual and reach for more energy, which in turn leads to higher calorie intake.”

So, not only are you more likely to reach for unhealthy processed snack foods when you’re not sleeping enough, you’re also more likely to take in more calories than you need. Those extra calories can lead to weight gain.

And that’s not the only way poor sleep can lead to excess weight. Lack of quality sleep can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The extra cortisol can cause your body to store excess calories as fat in the abdomen. “This abdominal fat can lead to insulin resistance, which then makes weight loss even more challenging,” Turilli said.

Here’s how what you eat affects how well you sleep

Sleep influences what you eat, and what you eat influences you sleep, too:

  • Stimulants make it harder for you to sleep, since they block hormones that help you sleep, and they increase your adrenaline. So, steer clear of caffeine-laden coffee, tea, energy drinks, or soda later in the day.
  • You might think alcohol benefits sleep because it helps you fall asleep quicker. But it can make it harder to fall into deep sleep and to stay asleep, so it causes poor quality sleep overall.
  • “Some research shows that foods high in magnesium, melatonin and tryptophan may improve sleep quality.” Turilli said. Good sources of these nutrients are fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, fortified grains, spinach, tofu and soy products, eggs, berries, tomatoes, peppers, poultry, milk, and chocolate.

When and how much you eat can also influence how well you sleep. “Eating consistently throughout the day and avoiding large meals right before bedtime can help improve quality of sleep,” Turilli said. That’s because when your body doesn’t have to work to digest food during the night it can focus on repair and restoration.

The bottom line

Your sleep habits and your snacking habits are intertwined. “Whether you’re looking to improve your nutrition, your sleep or both, remember the two are directly related. Making a few small changes to your daily diet can improve sleep quality and enhance your health,” Turilli said.

If you’re looking for ways to improve your sleep or your nutrition, the experts at Banner Health can help you evaluate your habits and find ways to make meaningful changes. Connect with a healthcare professional or visit to learn more.

For more information about better sleep, check out these articles:

Nutrition Sleep