Sleep deprivation may lead to an increase in food intake, including consumption of more fat and less carbohydrates due to changes in brain activity. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine sequestered 34 intervention subjects and 12 control subjects in a sleep lab for five days and four nights for round-the-clock monitoring. All participants were between the age of 21–50, nonsmokers, healthy, and mostly non-obese. The subjects received one night of regular sleep and where then randomized to total sleep deprivation or no sleep deprivation. After the first night of sleep, baseline function MRI (fMRI) was conducted to assess brain connectivity changes and on days two, three, and four at the same time each day. All subjects were allowed to consume as much food as they desired and were offered a variety of foods.

The subjects in the intervention group consumed nearly 1,000 during overnight wakefulness, although they consumed a similar amount of calories during the day compared to the control group. However, a greater percentage of calories from fat and a lower percentage from carbohydrates were consumed during the day following sleep deprivation in the intervention group. The sleep deprived subjects showed increased connectivity in the salience network of the brain that is believed to play a role in determining contextually dependent behavioral responses to internal or external stimuli; this increased connectivity was positively linked with the percentage of calories consumed from fat and negatively correlated with the percentage of carbohydrates following sleep deprivation. These changes in caloric intake and content may be due to changes in the “salience” of food (especially fatty food) in sleep-deprived individuals. While the authors acknowledge that these results are based on a single night of sleep loss, they believe that chronic sleep deprivation may also impact the salience network and lead to poor dietary choices.

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