Sleep quality may have a powerful influence on our eating habits, according to a new study from the University of Bern. The researchers found that the activation of neurons in the hypothalamus during REM sleep plays a key role in how much food we eat during waking hours.
Rapid eye movement sleep is the deepest phase of sleep, characterized by vivid dreams and increased breathing and heart rate. REM sleep is also accompanied by very high electrical signaling in the brain, but the function of this activity is a mystery.
Brain regions that show strong activation during REM sleep are areas involved in the regulation of memory and emotion. Another region that shows high activity is the lateral hypothalamus, which controls appetite, food consumption, and addiction.
A research team led by Dr. Antoine Adamantidis set out to investigate how neural activation associated with REM sleep influences our daily behavior. The experts focused their study on neurons in the hypothalamus using a mouse model.
The researchers discovered that when they suppressed neural activity in the hypothalamus during REM sleep, the mice ate substantially lower amounts of food. “This suggests that REM sleep is necessary to stabilize food intake,” explained Dr. Adamantidis.
The experts recognized that a specific pattern of neural behavior in the hypothalamus which signals eating during the day was also present when the animals were engaged in REM sleep. The team used an advanced technique to shut down this brain activity, and found that eating behavior was modified to where the animals consumed less food.
“We were surprised how strongly and persistently our intervention affected the neural activity in the lateral hypothalamus and the behavior of the mice,” said study first author Lukas Oesch. “The modification in the activity patterns was still measurable after four days of regular sleep.”
The findings show that quality of sleep is just as important as quantity of sleep for our well-being. The study highlights the fact that sleep quality plays a major role in maintaining healthy eating behavior.
“This is of particular relevance in our society where not only sleep quantity decreases but where sleep quality is dramatically affected by shift work, late night screen exposure or social jet-lag in adolescents”, explained Dr. Adamantidis.
The newly identified link between neural activity during REM sleep and waking behavior may ultimately lead to the development of new ways to treat eating disorders and addiction.
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.