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You’re Not Hungry – You’re Tired, Stressed & Thirsty

10 February 2019

Finding yourself plagued with hunger pains even after a day of sensible, filling, good for you meals? Stop! Don’t reach for the cookies or other quick fixes. Investigate a bit further into what could be causing unwarranted hunger pains.

Culprit #1: Sleep Deprivation

The threshold defining sleep deprivation will vary from person to person. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep per night for adults. This allows for a bit of wiggle room in what is considered a good night’s sleep. The amount of activity and general health will also be a big factor in determining how much sleep is ideal for you. What does remain constant between those dozing for 7.5 hours and those catching 8.5 hours of Zzz’s is the hormonal response to sleep deprivation. A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine discovered that after just two nights of restricted sleep there were significant spikes in the hormone ghrelin and declines in its counterpart leptin. Think of ghrelin as a goulish little hormone that served a purpose for motivating our ancestors to forage for food. Gouly ghrelin triggers hunger when energy stores are declining. While stable blood sugar levels from frequent, healthy meals will usually keep ghrelin at bay – hunger will cause ghrelin to surge leading to an increase in food cravings. To rub salt (or sugar coated lard) in the wound, our food cravings will generally be for calorie dense foods that will give our body’s the spike in energy stores they are instinctively searching for. Ghrelin’s counterpart, leptin, will be suppressed due to hormonal changes brought on by sleep deprivation. Lovely leptin usually sends signals to our brain communicating that we have adequate fat stores and do not need to pack on any more pounds. With ghrelin on the rise and leptin at all time lows, it is good to acknowledge when a power nap may be your best course of action. Nap time not a reality?  Hang in there, make smart choices for low calorie snacks such as peppers and carrots and prioritize a good night’s sleep immediately.


Culprit #2: Stress

It’s true, chronic stress causes increased hunger. In the short term stress may cause a flight or fight reaction. This flight or fight reaction triggers the release of epinephrine which can actually cause a decrease in hunger. Run! And don’t stop to eat! However, the long term effects of this stress on our adrenal glands is the release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a driving hormonal force in the motivation to eat. Much like the effects of ghrelin, cortisol will cause cravings for the calorie rich foods that can cause the most damage to our clean eating routine. Multiple studies show that the ingestion of sugary and fatty foods will indeed inhibit cortisol levels making them earn their name as “comfort foods”. A comfort food here and there is not the end of the world. The problem arises when we realize how chronically stressful our lives can be. Comfort food choices and other stress related poor eating patterns, such as night eating syndrome, can easily become our norm. Night eating syndrome (NES) is defined by International Journal of Obesity as consuming 50% or more of our daily calories after 6:00 PM. NES is highly linked to chronic stress and a surefire strategy for weight gain. Since avoiding stress completely is unrealistic, our best bet is to master a few coping mechanisms.  Manage stress levels by practicing meditation (solo, in a yoga class, or with free audio guidance), exercise regularly and seek positive social support and influences.

Culprit #3: Thirst

We suck at telling the difference between thirst and hunger. That statement sums up a bunch of scientific studies in a nutshell. What we do know is that being thirsty can often be perceived by the brain as hunger, leading us to overeat or snack excessively. We also know that the many people do not get the recommended intake of 64 ounces of water per day. Keep in mind that 64 ounces is a modest recommendation. This recommendation does not take into account climate and altitude differences that impact hydration for people living and traveling to different regions. The recommendation of 64 ounces is also not considering variances in body mass index, muscle mass and activity level. All of these factors lead to people ultimately benefiting from MORE than 64 ounces of water in a day. Since our brain is inevitably going to carry on misinterpreting hunger and thirst signals, the best bet is to get a step ahead of the problem. One of the most straightforward and frequently preached weight control and general health tips is to DRINK MORE WATER.  Start aiming for a glass of iced water before every meal or snack in addition to the 64 ounces that you drink throughout the day. Lemon, cucumber and mint will make this health tip more palatable.

The next time you spend a day feeling starved, take a moment to assess the key culprits of pretend hunger: sleep, stress and thirst.




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