Archive for March, 2011

FATigue Eating

March 28, 2011

Adequate quantity and quality of sleep are of obvious importance to our general well-being and optimal functioning. We have all enjoyed the blissful experience of a great night’s sleep, in which we awaken feeling rested, energetic, optimistic and ready to tackle the new day with vigor. Conversely, we have all experienced a very poor night’s sleep, in which we awaken feeling physically exhausted, mentally spent, lids heavy, dark circles under our eyes and in a disassociated “zombie” state, totally unprepared and unenthusiastic about facing the new day.

Sleeping has a vitally important restorative function—our batteries need to be recharged and our brains and bodies require this important down time. Acute sleep disruption is associated with many negative effects including increased appetite and caloric intake; chronic sleep deficits result in an inability to be attentive and focused, interfering with our mindfulness, which can further wreak havoc with our eating. The disassociated “zombie” state lends itself to dysfunctional eating patterns and, as such, weight gain is a predictable consequence. A chronically fatigued state also will affect our ability to exercise properly, if at all.

For many people—myself included—one of the key triggers of dysfunctional eating is fatigue. When I am physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, I often seek refuge in the refrigerator or pantry in spite of not being genuinely hungry. It seems that this fatigue—an altered state of mind and body—would best be served by seeking sanctuary in my bedroom, but mindless food foraging function as a surrogate activity.  Giving this some thought, I conclude that somehow my fatigue overrides my usual reasonably tight control over my eating behavior and that what I really need is not food to stimulate my taste buds, but simply a good night’s rest. So, I am at times substituting mindless eating for rest and sleep.

There appears to be a physiological basis for this fatigue-driven eating. Fatigue or sleep deprivation causes the following:

  • decreased levels of leptin, our appetite suppressant
  • increased levels of ghrelin, our appetite stimulant
  • increased levels of cortisol, one of the stress hormones
  • increased  glucose (blood sugar) levels

Thus, fatigue results in internal chemical changes that can drive our eating.

Take home points:

  • Fatigue interferes with our mindfulness and can result in unnecessary eating as a surrogate activity for sleeping.
  • There is a biochemical basis for our fatigue eating.
  • When we find ourselves succumbing to fatigue eating, it is best to try to muster up the mindfulness to head to the bedroom instead of the refrigerator—we will feel much better about ourselves in the morning and will have saved ourselves needless calories!
  • On a general basis, it is best not to use eating as a substitute for other activities

Andrew Siegel, M.D.