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Poor Sleep Fuels Bad Eating Habits (and Maybe Even Diabetes)


It’s hard to overestimate the importance of sleep. High quality sleep is associated with everything from better productivity, concentration and athletic performance to improved immune function and mental health.

Conversely, insufficient or poor sleep increases one’s risk of numerous health risks, including heart disease, diabetes and general inflammation, just to name a few. We’ve known about these associations for some time, but new research is beginning to uncover the underlying causes behind these outcomes.

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How Sleep Quality Affects Eating Behavior

Studies published in recent years have looked at a number of different questions related to sleep and late-night snacking, uncovering associations with skin damage, metabolic disease and other serious health conditions. However, there is still much to learn on the subject, which is why a new study out of the University of Arizona in Tucson looked specifically at the relationship between people who have difficulty falling asleep and their resulting eating habits.

Gathering and analyzing sleep- and diet-related data from 3,105 adults across 23 metropolitan areas in the United States, the researchers aimed to better understand why poor sleep has contributed to behavior-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Study participants answered questions regarding their night-time snacking habits, their quality of sleep and diagnosed diseases. Upon analysis of the participants’ responses, it became evident that poor sleep resulted in poor eating habits for the majority of the respondents.

Furthermore, to explore one of their questions in greater detail, the researchers also specifically asked the participants if sleep deprivation increased their desire to eat junk food. Interestingly, about two thirds of the respondents stated that a lack of sleep made them seek unhealthy foods.

Sleep deprivation was even found to be an indicator of unhealthy food cravings, which in turn were linked to a higher likelihood of a diagnosis of obesity or diabetes. More research is needed to uncover the strength of this association, but the implications are significant. For one, it is quite possible that sleep plays a much greater role in regulating the body’s metabolism than previously thought. As the health diagnoses considered in this study are serious and can greatly impact a person’s life, the role of sleep as a protective factor would seem all the more important.

How to Get Better Sleep

It is believed that between 50 and 70 million people in the United States suffer from some form of sleep disorder, according to the American Sleep Association. As so many people in this country are afflicted by these conditions, and as we’ve seen, quite likely are also afflicted by other diseases that may in part be a result of poor sleep, it is imperative to place a greater priority on this critical biological function.

But, as we all know, sometimes it just isn’t that easy to get a good night’s sleep. However, there are several things that we can do to effectively aid natural sleep, and even steps that we can take to pursue deeper sleep for a more restful night. In addition, it’s important to remember that blue light that is produced by digital screens may have a negative role in preventing sleep as well.

As a final thought, if all else fails and you simply can’t get to sleep some nights, practice mindfulness related to any night-time snacking you may pursue. Consider taking the step of having healthier snacks prepped ahead of time as a precaution, and perhaps have some sleep-inducing activities thought out in advance as well. Taking a slow-release melatonin supplement is also an excellent option for achieving a deep and restful sleep all night long.

Some of these things are easier said than done, but compared to the potential consequences of unhealthy late-night snacking (see our article Beware of the Night Munchies — They Increase Risk of Heart Disease and Diabetes to learn more), they are worth the effort.

Derek is a researcher, presenter and community liaison at the Behavioral Health & Wellness Program at the University of Colorado, specializing in promoting health systems change and combating health disparities. With his background as a technical writer and editor, he has over 15 years of experience working in the health care field. His experience includes serving as a contributing author on several textbooks in the medical field, running a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and writing a variety of other pieces ranging from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal passion for health and wellness by playing multiple sports, hiking and running marathons, and travels extensively, having visited or lived in over 60 countries.

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