Science Tips & Tricks

5 Ways Your Poor Sleep Affects Your Nutrition

February 11, 2021


5 Ways Your Poor Sleep Affects Your Nutrition

Eating and sleeping are the two things we take for granted in our modern world. We know that they’re the basis of our health and happiness, but often they’re our lowest priority. We stay up late, sacrificing our sleep, knowing it’s not the end of the world. We roll through a drive-through, desperate for that sugary coffee and quick-fix breakfast to get us going in the morning. We feel fine. Until about 2pm, when we start feeling awful and wonder why…

Sleep and nutrition are the foundation of wellness, both physical and emotional, and science is discovering every day how intimately linked they are. We’re learning now that the food we can influence the quality of our sleep, and our sleeping habits impact drastically affect our nutrition.

1. Sleep is Brain Nutrition

You may have your macro-game down to a science. Your knowledge of antioxidants, micro-nutrients, amino acids, and omega 3’s is expert-level. Your body is a well-fed machine, but might be overlooking the most important center of your body is actually your mind.

Sleep is literally your brain fuel. Yeah, healthy fats and antioxidants help with brain function, but without proper and consistent sleep, you’re filling a bucket with a major leak.

Everyone understands that our bodies need physical rest. We know that “burn out” is an issue, and that we can often push ourselves farther if we take things in increments. “Slow and steady wins the race.” Right? Yet, at the same time we often run ourselves ragged thinking our brains are tough enough to not need that care. Well, one late night might not kill you, but chronic sleep deprivation will slowly affect every aspect of your health.

What happens when we sleep?

Sleep is the brain’s time to clean the house and fix problems. It’s the quiet time at the end of the night after the kids have gone to bed. And there’s a lot to do.

Cellular restoration

This is the time when your body literally repairs and restores itself.

Many important processes that happen during sleep, including:

  • muscle repair
  • protein synthesis
  • tissue growth
  • hormone release and rebalance (this will come up later)

Brain function

Just like it repairs your cells, sleep also is the time that your neurons, or nerve cells, to reorganize.

When you sleep, your brain’s glymphatic (waste clearance) system clears out waste from the central nervous system. It removes toxic byproducts from your brain, which build up throughout the day. This allows your brain to work well when you wake up.

Once we’re in deep sleep our brains begin to organize our memories by converting short-term memories into long-term memories, and erasing, or forgetting, unneeded information that might otherwise clutter the nervous system.

This process helps us with our:

  • learning
  • memory
  • problem-solving skills
  • creativity
  • decision making
  • focus
  • concentration

Emotional well-being

We’ve heard about the physical (cells) and the mental (nervous system), but sleep is necessary for our emotional health. During sleep, our brains regulate our emotional stability by regulating the following parts of our brain:

  • amygdala
  • striatum
  • hippocampus
  • insula
  • medial prefrontal cortex

One example of how sleep can help regulate emotion occurs in the amygdala. This part of the brain, located in the temporal lobe, is in charge of our fear response. Biologically this was incredibly necessary to keep our ancestors safe when being hunted by predators was a likely scenario. However, in the modern world, an overactive or weakened amygdala is likely to put our bodies through life or death feelings of stress constantly throughout the day. Stress alone can cause weight gain, depression, fatigue, and a rise in cortisol which often causes people to turn to food to reduce that anxiety.

2. Poor Sleep Activates Your Reward Centers

Just like stress raises our cortisol, a balanced and consistent sleep cycle regulates our production of serotonin. When you miss a day of your precious sleep, your brain’s reward centers rev up, looking for something that feels good. You may notice that when you’re well-rested you tend to make healthy food decisions, while your sleep-deprived brain may struggle to fight against cravings. You’re not weak-willed. Your weak-slept.

Those who have inconsistent sleep patterns and are sleep deprived more long-term will actually suffer from decreased levels of natural serotonin, which becomes harder and harder to regain. This is one of the reasons we see people with poor sleep habits fall into a cycle of overeating, indulgence in alcohol, or drug use as a means to fill the void. These habits all act as depressants on our nervous system. The initial serotonin release is a trick. It doesn’t last and instead creates a cycle that quickly turns into depression.

3. Sleep Directly Affects Your Metabolism

Remember all those processes your brain takes care of while you’re sleeping? There were even more we didn’t mention, and one of those is your Metabolism. Yes, that magical word.

Metabolism is a chemical process in which the body converts what we eat and drink into energy needed to survive. Everything we do, from breathing to exercising and everything in between, is part of our metabolism. Your activity level and exercise temporarily increase metabolism, and technically sleep lowers your metabolism. Yes, your metabolism actually slows about 15% during sleep, reaching its lowest level in the morning. So wait, if we want a fast metabolism we should never sleep ever? No.

While your metabolism is temporarily slowed during sleep so your brain can repair and organize, it is regulating the hormones responsible for maintaining your overall metabolism. Allowing for your metabolism to stay high in general.

In fact, many studies have shown that sleep deprivation (whether due to self-induction, insomnia, untreated sleep apnea, or other sleep disorders) commonly leads to metabolic dysregulation. Which once destabilized, causes you to have a lower base metabolism and a harder time increasing it.

Sleep deprivation makes you “metabolically groggy,” University of Chicago researchers say. After just 4 days of consistently bad sleep, your body’s ability to process insulin goes haywire. When your body doesn’t respond properly to insulin, your body has trouble processing fats from your bloodstream, so it ends up storing them as fat.

4. Sleep Balances Your Hunger/Fullness Hormones

Hunger is just hunger, right? When your belly is empty, your tummy growls at you to fill it. End of story. It’s a completely physical thing.


Your brain and hormones are behind everything. Yes, a growling belly is a good sign and you can usually trust it, but our hunger cues are actually controlled by two neurotransmitters that are regulated during your sleep!

These neurotransmitters ghrelin and leptin (yes, they should like evil gnomes) and they control your appetite. Ghrelin promotes hunger, and leptin contributes to feeling full. The body naturally increases and decreases the levels of these neurotransmitters throughout the day, signaling the need to consume calories. But at night when you sleep, the brain balances them, allowing you to wake up in a balanced place.

However, deep sleep increases leptin (the fullness transmitter) and reduces our ghrelin (the hunger transmitter). If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re literally starting your day with excess hunger and low amounts of fullness receptors.

This is why you want to eat more than normal, and may even not feel full even though you’ve had enough.

5. Lack of Sleep Causes You to Crave High Calorie, Low-Nutrient Foods

Okay, so now you’re sleep-deprived. You’re lacking serotonin, your brain is less capable of making good decisions, it’s hunger cues are signaling and you may not ever feel full.

But you could go binge on broccoli… right? Probably not.

Chances are you’re doomed here too. Several studies have also proven that sleep deprivation affects our food preferences. Why? Biologically you’re looking for energy. Dense, caloric, “get-as-much-as-I-can” “who-cares-about-nutrition” foods.

Biologically it makes sense. Your brain is telling you, it’s on empty, it can’t function and it’s your job to go stuff yourself with energy fast. Find the densest source and get it in quick.

For most of human history, that was not a big deal. Our options were limited and everything was beyond organic. Not the same these days. The foods that we have access to can be truly harmful and while a single day isn’t the end of the world… this cycle can be addicting and life-threatening.

Tricks and Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep

You realize now your sleep is a problem but don’t know what to do about it. There are some things like work and kids that are beyond your control. But if you’re honest, there’s probably at least an hour or two that you waste each night staring at a screen when you could be treating your brain to a healthy wind-down and tucking in early.

Here are some things you can start practicing today:

  • Shut down your computer, cell phone, and TV at least an hour before you hit the sack.
  • Save your bedroom for sleep and other bedroom activities. Don’t bring your work, Netflix, or the outside world into your sleep space.
  • Create a bedtime ritual. It’s not the time to tackle big issues. Instead, take a warm bath, meditate, or read.
  • Stick to a schedule, waking up and retiring at the same times every day, even on weekends.
  • Watch what and when you eat. Avoid eating heavy meals and alcohol close to bedtime, which may cause heartburn and make it hard to fall asleep. And steer clear of soda, tea, coffee, and chocolate after 2 p.m. Caffeine can stay in your system for 5 to 6 hours.
  • Turn out the lights. Darkness cues your body to release the natural sleep hormone melatonin, while light suppresses it.
  • If you need a light to read invest in a warm-toned reading light that doesn’t affect your sleep cycle. Blue-toned lights mess with your daylight rhythm and can keep you out of whack.
  • Download a sleep app to monitor and track your sleep and work to slowly improve it.
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