Emerging research suggests women who sleep poorly tend to overeat and consume a lower-quality diet. The finding provides a plausible explanation on the way poor sleep quality can increase risk of medical issues and obesity. Experts believe understanding the linkage may lead to interventions that reduce heart disease among women.

Investigators at Columbia University Irving Medical Center explain that previous studies have shown that people who get less sleep are more likely to develop obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, and the relationship may be partially explained by diet.

However, these studies were narrowly focused on specific foods or nutrients (such as fish, sweets, or saturated fat) or only measured sleep duration, not sleep quality.

The new study offered a more comprehensive picture of women by examining associations between overall diet quality and multiple aspects of sleep quality.

“Women are particularly prone to sleep disturbances across the life span, because they often shoulder the responsibilities of caring for children and family and, later, because of menopausal hormones,” says Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, an assistant professor of medical sciences and senior author of the study.

The study of nearly 500 women appears online in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Investigators analyzed the sleep and eating habits of an ethnically diverse group of 495 women, ages 20 to 76. The study looked at sleep quality, the time it took to fall asleep, and insomnia. The women also reported on the types and amounts of foods they typically eat throughout the year, allowing researchers to measure their typical dietary patterns.

Similar to previous studies of sleep and diet, the study found that those with worse overall sleep quality consumed more of the added sugars associated with obesity and diabetes.

Women who took longer to fall asleep had higher caloric intake and ate more food by weight.

And women with more severe insomnia symptoms consumed more food by weight and fewer unsaturated fats than women with milder insomnia.

“Our interpretation is that women with poor-quality sleep could be overeating during subsequent meals and making more unhealthy food choices,” says Aggarwal.

The question remains: How might poor sleep contribute to poor eating?

“Poor sleep quality may lead to excessive food and calorie intake by stimulating hunger signals or suppressing signals of fullness,” says Faris Zuraikat, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the study.

“Fullness is largely affected by the weight or volume of food consumed, and it could be that women with insomnia consume a greater amount of food in an effort to feel full.

“However, it’s also possible that poor diet has a negative impact on women’s sleep quality,” adds Zuraikat.

“Eating more could also cause gastrointestinal discomfort, for instance, making it harder to fall asleep or remain asleep.”

“Given that poor diet and overeating may lead to obesity–a well-established risk factor for heart disease–future studies should test whether therapies that improve sleep quality can promote cardiometabolic health in women,” says Aggarwal.

Source: Columbia University