General Health · Student Life

Sleep vs. the Freshman 15

As college students, how often do people remind us about our potential to gain the “Freshman 15?” This warning bounced around my mind last weekend as I was studying with a floor mate for an upcoming biology exam. “If we get through one more chapter, we can break out that king-sized bag of Doritos in my closet!” Allie exclaimed at about 12:30 a.m. on a Friday night. I couldn’t believe how much my mouth watered at the thought of a savory, empty-calorie treat. My brain was fried after three hours of straight studying, and Doritos would serve as the perfect reward for my hard work, as well as a way to satiate my late night craving. I soon realized how regular this type of behavior is on college campuses, whether it’s snacking on packaged foods during night study sessions or ordering calzones after returning from a frat party. Obviously there are many factors that contribute to the Freshman 15, but the phenomenon of restless teen snacking at night can be a huge factor.

Late night meals bring up many critical issues regarding weight gain. To understand these issues, we can start out by assessing the Dorito-snacking scenario. First, eating Doritos at 12:30 a.m. indicated that bedtime was not far away, or at least within the next hour or two. Yet, this behavior contradicts a common piece of advice that we hear often: don’t eat before you go to sleep. In support of this claim, increases in body weight are caused primarily by changes in the rate at which metabolism functions during sleeping versus waking cycles. Our metabolism functions more rapidly during the day when we are relatively active, but it slows while we sleep. Unfortunately, the Doritos consumed before bed were metabolized and digested at a much slower rate, leading to potential weight gain.

Similarly, lack of sleep can also contribute to weight gain. In a study done by Harvard researchers involving 68,000 middle-aged women followed for 16 years, those who slept five hours or less each night were found to weigh 5.4 pounds more — and were 15 percent more likely to become obese — than the women who slept seven hours nightly. Clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus stresses that as the average length of sleep in the U.S decreases, the average weight of Americans increases. Many researchers claim that possible changes in the hormones leptin and grehlin, which regulate appetite, contribute to Breus’ point. Leptin, made by adipose tissue, is secreted into the circulatory system where it travels to the hypothalamus to indicate when a person should eat less or stop eating. Like leptin, ghrelin goes into the blood, crosses the blood-brain barrier, and ends up at the hypothalamus. The only difference is that grehlin is secreted primarily in the lining of the stomach and tells someone when he or she is hungry. Short sleepers have lower levels of appetite-suppressing leptin and higher levels of ghrelin, which prompt an increase in caloric intake.

People eat at night for a variety of reasons, often ones that have little to do with hunger. As college students in particular, we must learn to manage our time in order to get an optimal amount of sleep and control our cravings before they get out of control.

By Allison Milch