The journal Sleep published a new paper on Monday suggesting that sleep deprivation may act as a food trigger, resulting in sensations comparable to the “marijuana munchies.” The paper, partially funded by the Department of Defense, makes the case that a lack of sleep can trigger powerful changes in how you eat. Study researcher Erin Hanlon from the University of Chicago described the resulting effect as enhancing the “guilty pleasures” of sweet, salty, and high-fat foods.

Got The Munchies? It May Be Sleep Deprivation

Small Study Yields Interesting Results

In what has for now only been a small study — just 14 healthy men and women in their 20s were involved — the tests were highly controlled and the results are believed to be telling.

Each participant was asked to come in for two separate four-day visits, during which time their sleep and food intake were closely monitored.

During the first visit, participants were in bed for 8.5 hours every night, averaging about 7.5 hours of sleep. The second visit restricted them to 4.5 hours in bed, with an average of 4.2 hours of sleep. The food provided during each visit was the same, with meals served at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and occasional access to a buffet full of snacks including cookies, chips and candy available.

Blood Tests Show Increased Appetite

Blood testing was done throughout the study and the results found an interesting change. Less sleep showed an amplification of and change in the daily rhythm of a chemical signal known as endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol, or 2-AG. As part of the body’s endocannabinoid system, 2-AG is believed to effect appetite, along with motor skills, pain and some cognitive functions. It is the same one targeted by the active ingredient in marijuana.

When the volunteers received a normal amount of sleep during the first stage of the study, blood levels of the 2-AG signal tended to be low overnight, rise slowly in the morning and peak at around 12:30 p.m.

While sleep-deprived in the second part of the study, their levels of 2-AG rose to higher levels, peaking around 2:30 p.m. and remaining elevated through the evening.

Hanlon explained in an interview that when asked how they felt about food after normal sleep vs. less sleep, the study subjects reported feeling greater hunger levels when their sleep had been cut short. “They had a stronger desire to eat and thought they could eat more,” she said.

The subjects’ feelings about food, as well as their eating habits, were striking. They not only reported higher scores for hunger and a stronger desire to consume, but they ate nearly twice as much fat in the second round when given access to the buffet of snacks.

Food Consumed for Pleasure Rather Than Necessity

Interestingly, the need for greater caloric intake should hardly have been impactful. People are estimated to need only 17 extra calories for each additional hour they spend awake.  “What we found is that it’s not just about energy homeostasis but also for the reward or pleasurable aspects of hedonistic eating,” Hanlon said.

The study implies that the accumulation of sleep loss should be taken more seriously, given the extraordinary changes in the body the researcher found in just four days.

“The large overarching message is that sleep restriction and sleep deficiency have been associated with multiple deleterious outcomes, and it’s important for us to realize that adequate sleep is an important aspect of maintaining good health,” Hanlon said. “People who believe in the old adage ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ need to revisit their thinking.”