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Keeping the pounds off with sleep

A growing body of research is linking obesity to sleep deprivation. This week on “Take Care,” WRVO's weekly health and wellness show, hosts Linda Lowen and Lorraine Rapp speak with Dr. Eve Van Cauter, a physician and the director of the University of Chicago's Sleep, Metabolism and Health center, about why people feel hungry when they are tired and haven't had enough sleep.

Lorraine Rapp: Why is there a tendency to overeat when we’re tired?

Dr. Eve Van Cauter: It’s important to put it in the context of the biology of mammals in general.  The human is unique in sleep depriving itself.  Other mammals go to sleep when they are tired.  The exceptions are an animal will continue to stay awake to find food in conditions where food is insufficient.  That is one condition where an animal will continue to stay awake and sleep deprive itself is to find food.  Another condition where that might happen is to flee danger.  Our biology is wired to interpret sleep deprivation as either corresponding to a lack of food or corresponding to major stress.  The human has stepped out of the boundaries of the biology and [has] sleep deprived itself comfortably sitting in an armchair in front of the television and forages in the refrigerator.    

Linda Lowen: I like that analogy.  When the biology takes over, is it that we’re just hardwired to do that or is [it] that we have less impulse control?  What’s going on exactly?

Dr. Van Cauter: We do not fully understand the mechanism, but one system that clearly plays a role is a small neuronal system in the hypothalamus called the orexin neurons.  These orexin neurons are hyperactivated when animals or humans are sleep deprived in order to continue to maintain wakefulness.  This hyperactivity is simultaneously associated with a stimulation of all the systems that promote hunger and appetite.  Orexin levels go up and then the satiety hormones go down and the appetite hormones go up, or hunger goes up and we walk to the refrigerator. 

Lorraine Rapp: Is there anything we can do to interfere and work with that aside from getting enough sleep?

Dr. Van Cauter: Clearly you need more self-control [and] more discipline to control caloric intake when you’re sleep deprived.  There are studies now, epidemiology studies [and] population studies [that] show that the success of a weight loss diet is compromised when sleep is insufficient.  To try to reduce dietary intake [and] reduce calories while sleep deprived is like rollerblading uphill.  You can do it, but it takes a lot more effort and your chances of arriving there are compromised.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.