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There is a link between weight gain and shut eye

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Yacht charters are a 24-hour business. There’s always one client who wants to stay up until the wee hours and another who considers sunup the perfect time for a swim or yoga on deck. Both scenarios mean staying up late or getting up early to take care of a client’s hospitality needs.

More than feeling groggy, sleep deprivation from such a crazy schedule can lead to weight gain and, with it, a risk for chronic problems such as diabetes and heart disease. Some of this is due to diet. After all, who hasn’t raided the galley for cookies in the middle of the night or reached for a sugary donut to wake up?

There are more factors than willpower at play. Thankfully, there are things we can do to short circuit the sleep-less-weigh-more effect.

Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can make us feel hungry, so we therefore eat more. The calories in this extra food are more than what is burned by simply being awake longer, so the pounds can pile on over time.

What is really interesting is that researchers from the University of Chicago earlier this year dove down to the molecular level to find out what caused the sleep-deprived munchies. They discovered that a lack of shut-eye has the same effects in the body as activation of what’s called the endocannabinoid (eCB) system. This system is important to the brain’s regulation of appetite and energy levels.

The eCB system, which is better known for coming alive by the key chemicals in marijuana, can create a ferocious appetite for especially pleasure-provoking junk foods such as the cookies, candies and chips offered to the subjects in this study. In other words, being sleep deprived cues a hedonic response for certain foods while at the same time weakening willpower, especially for high-calorie goodies.

Shift work and chronic jet-lag can also upset the applecart of the body’s circadian rhythm and lead to weight gain. Researchers in Brazil published an article earlier this year that showed when the subjects, nurses in this case, switched from daytime to night shifts, they had twice the likelihood of gaining an extra 10 pounds. Interestingly, there appeared no increased weight risk to changing from a night to daytime shift.

Here are three tips from the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C., on how to battle weight gain from lack of sleep.

  1. Have healthy foods on hand. Knowing that we are more likely to snack on high-sugar, high-fat foods when we’re tired is a good opportunity to be sure to have good-for-you goodies on hand. Suggestions include fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, hummus and whole grain crackers, salsa and 100 percent corn chips, fat-free fruit yogurt, and hot or cold unsweetened cereal and fat-free milk.
  2. Sit down and eat. Resist the urge to grab snacks running from one duty to another. This puts the body at a Code Red for mindless snacking. Instead, sit down, eat, relax and savor a meal.
  3. Resist the caffeine rush. Caffeinated beverages can certainly pep us up when we’re sleep deprived. They can also leave us too wired to fall asleep when we need to. Instead, drink water or water spiked with a squeeze of lemon, lime or other fruit, or vegetables such as cucumber. The double bonus is that since sensations of hunger and thirst are triggered the same way in our bodies, hydrating can actually quench an appetite.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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