Starving? Those hunger pains may be keeping you awake, but mentally alert. Though a lack of sleep for any reason is never fun, researchers have found that when hunger is the cause of staying awake, the mental repercussions are less severe. In fact, you may have a clear mental state if you go to bed hungry. If you are starving, from a survival standpoint, it’s important to be able to stay alert and have clear thoughts in order to find food. However, most of us are not starving, which means if we go to bed hungry we could actually be sending our bodies into starvation mode and consequently losing shut-eye.
Newly acquired knowledge on two genes, brummer (bmm) and Lipid storage droplet 2 (Lsd2), inspired this study. While bmm causes creatures to be resilient to starvation, Lsd2-inflicted species are especially prone to hunger. Scientists turned to flies as their test subjects because not only can scientists easily mutate flies’ genes, but also previous studies have found commonalities between the sleep behavior of flies and humans. They divided flies into three groups: flies mutated with bmm, flies mutated with Lsd2, and non-mutated flies to serve as a control group.
Studying each group of flies, scientists saw distinct differences in their behaviors. The well fed yet sleep deprived (through other stimulus such as light irritation) bmm-mutated flies needed significant recuperation time. Typically when we are sleep deprived, we suffer from learning impairment and go through “sleep homeostasis,” a recovery process to regain our normal states. However, the starving flies showed no signs of sleep homeostasis, instead remaining alert and mentally acute. For whatever reason, the predominating state of hunger overpowered and eliminated the usual consequences of sleep deprivation.
While scientists already knew that the “lack of food availability increases the duration of waking,” it is news that appetite-driven sleep deprivation has minimal effect on one’s mental capabilities. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism for starving creatures to stay alert in order to find and digest nourishment. Further research on bmm and Lsd2 will be necessary before making firm conclusions.
So what does it all mean? Certainly no one is recommending that you starve yourself in order to stay awake and not feel the consequences. Obviously, obtaining a good night’s sleep and maintaining a regular, healthy diet are of the utmost importance. Instead, experts are beginning to realize that genetics play a role in our responses to sleep deprivation and that, more specifically, our metabolisms can influence and prevent the usual side effects of drawn-out wakefulness.