Megan Brooks

June 08, 2015

SEATTLE — For sleep-deprived night owls, eating less during late night hours may help curb the deficits in concentration and alertness that accompany sleep deprivation, new research hints.

"Adults consume approximately 500 additional calories during late-night hours when they are sleep restricted," senior investigator David F. Dinges, PhD, head of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (UPenn), Philadelphia, noted in statement.

"Our research found that refraining from late-night calories helps prevent some of the decline those individuals may otherwise experience in neurobehavioral performance during sleep restriction," Dr Dinges said.

Andrea Spaeth, PhD, from the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at UPenn, who worked on the study with Namni Goel, PhD, from the Unit for Experimental Psychiatry at UPenn, presented the results here at SLEEP 2015: Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

The researchers recruited 44 healthy adults aged 21 to 50 years to participate in their study, conducted in the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at UPenn. The researchers gave the participants unlimited access to food and drink during the day, followed by only 4 hours of sleep each night for 3 nights.

On the fourth night, 20 participants received continued access to food and drinks, and 24 were only allowed to have water from 10:00 pm until they went to sleep at 4:00 am. Each night, at 2:00 am, all participants completed a variety of tests to measure their working memory, cognitive skills, sleepiness, stress level, and mood.

During the fourth night, the fasted subjects performed better on tests of reaction time and had fewer lapses in attention than their counterparts who had eaten during the late-night hours.

In addition, the late-night eaters showed significantly slower reaction times and more attention lapses on the fourth night of sleep restriction compared with the first 3 nights, whereas those subjects who had fasted did not show this performance decline.

Possible Countermeasure

This study suggests that short-term, late-night fasting "attenuates the performance decrement on vigilant attention caused by sleep restriction," Dr Spaeth said.

Although this is a small initial study, the data suggest the possibility of using food intake as a "possible countermeasure" in certain situations, she said.

For example, "for people in fields that require vigilant attention late at night, like truck drivers, one possible strategy may be to time when who eats and how much you eat. We need more studies, but it is an interesting possibility."

She added, "This study also supports that the sleep–wake system and energy-balance system interact, so there is cross-talk between these two systems."

Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Saul Rothenberg, PhD, behavioral sleep psychologist at North Shore-LIJ Sleep Disorders Center in Great Neck, New York, said a "story has been developing for a number of years about the connection between the gut and the brain, and it appears that a state of increased metabolic need is associated with a state of alertness and decreased metabolic need with a state of sleepiness."

"These findings are in the general direction that you would expect: insufficient eating leads to increased alertness and may counteract some of the effects of sleep loss," said Dr Rothenberg.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Penn Clinical and Translational Research Center, and the Department of the Navy, Office of Naval Research. The authors and Dr Rothenberg have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

SLEEP 2015: Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies: Abstract 0317. Presented June 7, 2015.

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