Here’s Why I Eat String Cheese When I’m Sleep-Deprived

Here’s Why I Eat String Cheese When I’m Sleep-Deprived

If you’re anything like me, a sleep deficit presents a particularly gnarly challenge when it comes to healthy eating: You roll out of bed after 20 minutes of alarm-snoozing, grab a sugary protein bar, inhale it on the train, down a cup of coffee at your desk and by 10:30 you can’t stop thinking about salty things — from peanut butter pretzels to barbecue potato chips.

If you work for a startup or tech company like I do, you’re likely faced with a pitfall disguised as a perk: free snacks. When you’re running on empty, they’re very, very hard to resist.

But I was tickled this morning to learn from Science of Us that sleepy snacking isn’t just about lack of willpower — it’s about biology. According to research shared at last week’s annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, sleep deprivation elevates your sense of smell, but only when it comes to food.

Here’s what Science News had to say about it (via Science of Us):

"Adults operating on only four hours of sleep inhaled food odors such as those from potato chips and cinnamon rolls, and nonfood smells like fir trees while undergoing functional MRI scans. (The scientists carefully controlled participants’ food intake throughout the day.) A few weeks later, the same participants repeated the experiment — this time with a full eight hours of sleep.

"When tired, participants showed greater brain activity in two areas involved in olfaction — the piriform cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex — in response to food smells than they did when well rested. That spike wasn’t seen in response to nonfood odors ... "

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Since smell is one of the most important ways we experience our food (think: the scent of freshly baked apple pie wafting through your kitchen), this heightened sensitivity makes it much harder to keep our eating in check.

I’ve always thought it stands to reason that when we haven’t gotten enough sleep we scramble to find energy from another source, calorically dense food. I’ve also hypothesized (and so have some actual scientists) that when we’re tired, we’re unable to exercise self-control. So, for example, while we can pass on the Boston cream donuts on the break room counter on a day when we’ve gotten eight hours of shuteye, they’re pure Kryptonite when we’re exhausted.

For good measure, Science of Us also threw in two other studies to underscore the biology at play here: A 2013 study found that sleep deficit compromises your ability to resist high-calorie foods, while another one released last year showed that brains running on empty contained higher levels of 2-arachidonoylglycerol, or 2-AG — a naturally occurring chemical similar to the munchies-inducing ones found in cannabis.

The takeaway? Instead of trying to exercise self-control, try getting more sleep.

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