The team’s previous research suggested that sleep deprivation affected levels of endocannabinoids, chemicals in the brain that are involved in regulating appetite and bind to the same receptors as marijuana.
Hanlon’s team, from the University of Chicago, Universite Libre de Bruxelles and Medical College of Wisconsin, was able to measure the concentration of a specific endocannabinoid called 2AG in the blood. For both groups, the researchers matched those levels with hunger and food intake.
Under normal sleep conditions, the concentration of 2AG endocannabinoids gradually increased in the blood during the day, reaching a peak in the early afternoon that coincided with the onset of early afternoon munchies.
But for subjects who had less sleep, not only did researchers note greater increases in 2AG concentration that lasted into the late evening, but participants were also hungrier and more likely to eat unhealthy snacks.
This study is an important step in understanding the relationship between the endocannabinoid system, sleep deprivation and weight gain, Hanlon said.