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People who do not get enough sleep often start to favor sweet and fatty foods, which contributes to weight gain. While the exact mechanisms are still unknown, lack of sleep seems to change food preferences by influencing the levels of molecules that regulate food intake. In particular, it could have an effect on the endocannabinoid system, a complex network of molecules in the nervous system that controls biological processes such as appetite.
The sense of smell is also tightly linked to how and what organisms choose to eat. Recent experiments indicate that in rodents, endocannabinoids enhance food intake by influencing the activity of the brain areas that process odors. However, it is still unclear whether the brain regions that process odors play a similar role in humans.
To investigate, Bhutani et al. examined the impact of a four-hour night’s sleep on 25 healthy human volunteers. Blood analyses showed that after a short night, individuals had increased amounts of 2-oleoylglycerol, a molecule that is part of the endocannabinoid system. When sleep-deprived people were given the choice to eat whatever they wanted, those with greater levels of 2-oleoylglycerol preferred food higher in energy. Bhutani et al. also imaged the volunteers’ brains to examine whether these changes were connected to modifications in the way the brain processed smells. This revealed that, in people who did not sleep enough, an odor-processing region called the piriform cortex was encoding smells more strongly.
The piriform cortex is connected to another region, the insula, which integrates information about the state of the body to control food intake. Lack of sleep altered this connection, and this was associated with a preference for high-energy food. In addition, further analysis showed that changes in the amounts of 2-oleoylglycerol were linked to modifications in the connection between the two brain areas. Taken together, these results suggest that sleep deprivation influences the endocannabinoid system, which in turn alters the connection between piriform and insular cortex, leading to a shift toward foods which are high in calories.
In the United States alone, one in three people sleep less than six hours a night. Learning more about how sleep deprivation affects brain pathways and food choice may help scientists to develop new drugs or behavioral therapies for conditions like obesity.