How Sleep Can Help Curb Stress Eating

Health and wellness decisions are often linked together. Specifically, you might have already noticed how sleep, stress, and eating decisions seem to be interwoven. Have you ever been under loads of stress on the job, and then felt the undying temptation to grab a big cookie after work as a form of self-soothing? It happens.

But according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, a good night’s sleep can combat negative feelings on the job, allowing you to make healthier food choices next day.

Sleep Can Curb Stress Eating

In the study of 235 workers, researchers looked at both IT employees who typically felt like they didn’t have enough hours in a day to complete their to-do list, as well as call-center employees who often had to deal with angry customers. In both types of workers’ cases, on-the-job stress was high; the employees also consumed a greater number of unhealthy foods and fewer healthy options after work.

When sleep entered the picture at night, the researchers found that men and women who got a good night’s sleep were able to make healthier eating decisions compared with those who didn’t get quality sleep.

Why is sleep so essential to buffering against the effects of stress and poor eating choices? It all starts with “your brain on stress,” according to Fitbit sleep expert Allison Siebern, PhD. The frontal lobe (a.k.a. the prefrontal cortex) regulates thinking, behavior and emotion. However, “when you’re high on stress and low on quality sleep, there’s a decrease in activity in this portion of the brain,” says Siebern.

That drop in activity skews executive functioning, so you’re less likely to plan ahead to make the best choices for your health, Siebern says. “The frontal lobe aids in decision-making and, if left with decreased activity, poor decisions may increase such as with food choices,” she explains. “The stress hormone cortisol may also spike during a period of increased stress, leading to a conservation of fuel.” Basically, your body will hang onto fat cells.

Sleep Hormones Also Regulate Hunger

Sleep can be a great mediator between stress and poor eating, as this recent study shows—even if researchers aren’t 100 percent certain of the mechanisms yet. “We do know that the hormones that regulate sleep also regulate hunger,” says Siebern. “These hormones are ghrelin, which signals when we should be hungry, and leptin, which signals when we are satiated. When a person has been sleep deprived, the body increases production of ghrelin and decreases leptin.” The hormonal shifts might be the reason that urge to eat a cookie feels nearly impossible to resist.

According to Siebern, studies have been looking at the effects of poor sleep and a person’s eating habits for some time. “After a night of decreased sleep, there can be an increase in caloric intake and eating foods with higher fat content,” she explains. “It may also lead to eating later at night and increased caloric intake at that time.” Yikes.

The fix might seem easy: Get to bed early, and clock your seven to nine hours. However, you can’t always fall asleep at the drop of a hat—especially if you’ve had a stressful day. “Something to be aware of is focusing on stress-reducing activities overall, in addition to a ‘wind down time’ roughly 30 to 60 minutes prior to bedtime,” says Siebern. “During this time, you should do activities that you enjoy, but that are also relaxing.”

That means quietly reading a book, but probably not looking at political news on Facebook. Or chatting with your spouse, but maybe not watching a thriller film or an intense sporting event. Siebern says that if you do this, you can potentially “start to help downregulate the system to get ready for sleep.”

Just remember: Sweet dreams can help you sidestep the sweets tray tomorrow at work.


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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  • If I cant sleep well i won’t wanna eat anything in the next morning, although i feel really hungry at that night. Your article gives me the answer. And now i am trying to go to bed before 10 pm every night and feel happy when wake up every morning!

    • I have no problem falling asleep. Staying asleep is my problem. Every hint is about going to bed earlier, how to relax etc. No suggestions about how to stay asleep. Help please

    • Going to bed early is not always an option. My body does not want to sleep beyond 6am (sometimes earlier) and once I wake up my brain starts working and I can feel the stress in my stomach (not a hunger feeling) so I cannot go back to sleep. During the week I have to work so I have to get up anyway but during the weekend I should be able to sleep longer but that doesn’t work. Any ideas/tips?

      P.S. When I do go to bed (early or late) I fall asleep immediately so that’s not an issue.

  • I go to bed by 9.30pm most nights but I never fall to sleep until after midnight I feel very fidgety, and can’t seem to change this. I do eat late due to my job is this why ?

  • My problem is not falling asleep but staying asleep. I wake soon after 2am and am unable to get back to sleep. I try to stay in bed and relaxe but often I’m downstairs on the sofa. I don’t nap in the day

  • I typically get between 5 and a half and 6 hours a night fall asleep easily but wake about 2/3times so don’t get a good long stretch I don’t have caffeine at all and read for about 16 minutes before falling asleep I also run 5/6time a week between 5-6 miles but still can’t control my craving for sugary snacks during the day Help!

  • Hi,
    Just wondering if you can help me sort out my eating.

    I have been diagnosed with PTSD and my weight has just increased every year, i just need help and support to get fitter again. How could you help me?

  • I can not sleep well, doing regular excercise achieving all goal except sleepo goal. Specially my deep sleep hardly 1 hr

  • This is very interesting and I would agree on this as I tend to be stress eating at times may be due to lack of sleep which results in gain of weight. What should be done or not done.

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