Sleep Disorders

19 July 2017

Constant junk food cravings? Just get more sleep!

A study found that when workers have a good night's sleep, they tend to eat better when experiencing stress the next day.

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Do you often find yourself tossing and turning all night, ending up groggy and lethargic at work the next day? And the only thing that makes the workday bearable is a salty hamburger and chips, or a greasy doughnut?

The problem is that if this cycle of bad sleep and junk food continues, it can end up having a negative effect on your weight and overall health. 

Besides several health problems caused by poor sleep, a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that poor sleep is also to blame for junk food cravings. "We found that employees who have a stressful workday tend to bring their negative feelings from the workplace to the dinner table," said study co-author Chu-Hsiang (Daisy) Chang, of Michigan State University. That means they eat more than usual and opt for more junk food instead of healthy food, said Chang, an associate professor of psychology.

Link between poor sleep and poor diet

"However, another key finding showed how sleep helped people deal with their stressful eating after work," Chang noted. "When workers slept better the night before, they tended to eat better when they experienced stress the next day."

The findings stem from two studies involving a total of 235 men and women in China. Participants in one study were described as "information-technology employees" with demanding, high-stress jobs. The second study enlisted call-centre workers exposed to the continuous stress of serving demanding customers.

Stress also a culprit

In both cases, stress was linked to the onset of negative thinking. And that mindset was then found to be associated with a higher risk for unhealthy eating at night.

As to why, the researchers suggested that stress can undercut self-control while also increasing the desire to do something, such as eating, to relieve or avoid bad feelings. But those who slept well before heading to work were less likely to eat poorly at night, the researchers said.

"A good night's sleep can make workers replenished and feel vigorous again, which may make them better able to deal with stress at work the next day and less vulnerable to unhealthy eating," Chang said in a journal news release. She added that the findings should encourage employers to promote the benefits of routinely getting good sleep.

Sleep disorder might be to blame

If you have persistent sleeping trouble, you might have a sleep disorder. Insomnia, a common sleep disorder, is a frequent experience of inadequate or poor sleep and affects many adults. According to the South African Society of Sleep Medicine, about 30% to 40% of adults indicate some level of insomnia within any given year, and about 10% to 15% indicate that the insomnia is chronic and/or severe. The prevalence of insomnia increases with age and is more common in women. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty maintaining a full night's sleep
  • Lethargy and lack of concentration during the day

Treat the sleeping disorder

If you do suffer from a sleeping disorder, a good night's sleep tends to be well out of your reach. Besides from negative impacts on the body that can stem from a lack of sleep, the junk food you crave is also the scapegoat for a number of health problems. The solution? Treat the sleeping disorder first, then target your eating patterns. 

If you suspect you suffer from a sleeping disorder and that it's affecting your diet, do the following:

  • Get professional help if your sleeping trouble persists.
  • Keep a sleep diary to try and identify patterns.
  • Ban TVs and other screen devices from the bedroom.
  • Avoid caffeine and/or nicotine two hours before bed. 
  • Identify your cravings the following day and try to counteract them with a healthier alternative.

Read more:

Symptoms of sleep disorders

Junk food a brain drain

Managing sleep disorders

 

Ask the Expert

Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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