INSOMNIA HAS LONG BEEN associated with poor health, including weight gain and obesity. Now researchers at UCLA have found out why. In a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, UCLA Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Sarosh Motivala, Ph.D., and colleagues looked at two hormones that are primarily responsible for regulating the body’s energy balance, telling the body when it is hungry and when it is full. The study found that chronic insomnia disrupts one of these two hormones.
To date, no study has evaluated nocturnal levels of the two hormones, ghrelin and leptin, in primary insomnia patients. Ghrelin, a peptide secreted by the stomach, stimulates appetite and increases before meals. Leptin, which affects body weight and is secreted primarily by fat cells, signals the hypothalamus regarding the degree of fat storage in the body; decreased leptin tells the body there is a calorie shortage and promotes hunger, while increased levels promote energy expenditure.
In the study, researchers compared healthy sleepers with those suffering from chronic insomnia and measured the levels of the two hormones at various times throughout the night. They found that while leptin levels averaged out over the night to be roughly the same between the two groups, levels of ghrelin were 30 percent lower in insomnia sufferers.
On the face of it, a decreased level of ghrelin would seem to inhibit weight gain; it is an increase in ghrelin, after all, that stimulates appetite. But Dr. Motivala compared his findings with earlier studies on sleep deprivation and speculates that a switch may occur during the day: Sleep loss leads to increased ghrelin and decreased leptin, a “double whammy” that stimulates appetite.
“The current study shows that insomnia patients have a dysregulation in energy balance that could explain why these patients gain weight over time,” says Dr. Motivala. The finding “highlights how diverse behaviors like sleep and eating are connected. We are just beginning to explore the possible consequences of these connections, but it is another example of the importance of a good night’s sleep.”Illustration: Courtesy of Ellen Weinstein