The average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep, yet in the United States, 28 to 44 percent of adults admit they get less. The statistics are made even more alarming by the fact that sleep issues are a growing problem. Sleep deprivation, that’s anytime you get less than seven hours of sleep, has a heavy impact on your eating habits. So much so that lack of sleep could derail your health goals.

Less Sleep Means More Hunger

The body uses hormones to send chemical messages to and from the brain. The stomach releases the hormone ghrelin when you start to feel empty. However, when in a state of sleep deprivation, the stomach releases more ghrelin than normal. Consequently, you feel hungrier even though your body doesn’t actually need the extra calories you may consume.

Survival is your body’s first concern. When you don’t get enough sleep, the body assumes you need more energy to account for those extra waking hours. At night, you only burn about 17 extra calories for each hour you’re awake. Today, when food is readily available, chances are you’ll consume far more than 17 calories.

Forget About Feeling Full

On the other side of the appetite coin is satiety. Fat cells release the hormone leptin when they sense you’ve met your energy needs. But, when you’re running low on sleep, leptin levels go down, which means you don’t feel full even if you’re eating more food. Leptin also acts as a metabolic stimulant. You can see where this is headed; low leptin levels slows the metabolism too.

Unfortunately, the effects of sleep deprivation reach past appetite into how the brain responds to the foods you eat.

Watch Out for Hidden “Rewards”

The reward center of the brain gets stimulated by food, otherwise eating wouldn’t be pleasurable. However, a study published in Sleep found that “sleep restriction boosts a signal that may increase the hedonic aspect of food intake, the pleasure and satisfaction gained from eating.” Your brain gets bigger rewards from food when you’re tired, and when you’re struggling to stay awake, all you want is something that feels good.

Food Cravings You Can’t Ignore

The same study found that lack of sleep also stimulates the endocannabinoid system, raising blood levels of endocannabinoids by 33 percent. Why does the endocannabinoid system matter? It influences food cravings. Sleep-deprived food cravings leave carrots and celery sticks behind in favor of chips, pretzels, and sweet treats. In the study, sleep-deprived participants opted for foods with 50 percent more calories and twice the fat in comparison to when they’d gotten a full night’s sleep.

What It All Means and How to Get Some Sleep

The combination of more hunger, less satiety, and intense food cravings means that lack of sleep can be a barrier to better health. However, sleep quality (and quantity) can be improved through behavioral changes.

  • You can start by creating a sleep supportive bedroom environment. That may mean blackout curtains or a white noise machine to eliminate distractions and interruptions.

  • Go to bed at the same time each night and create a relaxing bedtime routine to reduce your stress.

  • Eat healthy, regularly spaced meals to help your body establish a consistent eating pattern. Your eating habits influence the timing of your sleep-wake cycle.

  • Spend more time outside. Sunlight helps your brain correctly time the release of sleep hormones.

If you’re going to eat right, you need sleep. Though it may take time to develop better sleep habits, once you do, you’ll notice the benefits go far beyond food.

This guest post was written for Finding My Weigh by Tuck. Tuck is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NBC News, NPR, Lifehacker, and Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.