How Does Sleep Deprivation Cause Hormone Changes?

Appetite, Growth Impacted by Too Little Sleep

It is common to not get enough sleep at night. No matter the reason, this loss of sleep can have important consequences on health. How does sleep deprivation cause hormone changes in the body? Learn about some of the potential impacts of inadequate sleep on your endocrine system.

A Word on Hormones

First, it is important to understand a little about the vital role of hormones within the body. These chemical messengers serve a key function in nearly every major process of our body, holding influence over everything from growth to metabolism to reproduction.

These various hormones and the glands that secrete them are collectively called the endocrine system. Many hormones are ultimately controlled by structures within the brain, including the master control called the pituitary gland. When disrupted, there can be important changes that occur in the body.

Inadequate Sleep and Hormone Changes

Hormones can be highly influenced by the natural pattern of light and darkness and by the presence or absence of sleep. Variations in hormone levels can be measured with consistent patterns from day to day. Many of our body’s processes are linked to this timing through the circadian rhythm, controlled via the suprachiasmatic nucleus, an area within the hypothalamus of the brain. The hypothalamus is important in regulating body temperature, appetite, and energy use. When the hypothalamus is disturbed by sleep deprivation, other systems of the body are impacted.

There is a lot of research that supports the association between sleep deprivation and disrupted metabolism. In 1999, it was noted that when subjects were restricted to 4 hours of sleep per night for one week that their metabolism changed. There was impaired glucose tolerance, a marker of insulin resistance that predisposes to diabetes, and changes in hormones linked to weight gain and hypertension.

Fortunately, the changes were reversible with a return to normal sleep times.

In 2004, researchers found that sleep restriction changes hormones that regulate hunger and appetite. In particular the hormone leptin, which importantly suppresses appetite, decreased by 18%. An associated hormone called ghrelin, which normally increases appetite, increased by 28%. The subjects were also noted to more likely select calorie-dense foods with high carbohydrate content as a result. (Think about the foods you might choose when you aren’t sleeping enough and you want to feel better with a treat.) These changes may lead to weight gain.

These effects are not limited to adults, unfortunately. In 2005, the British Medical Journal reported that short sleep duration at 30 months predicts obesity at 7 years in children. This suggests that poor sleep may have a permanent impact on the hypothalamus, influencing long-term appetite and energy expenditure.

In addition, inadequate sleep at night may reduce slow-wave sleep among children.

It is during this stage of sleep that growth hormone is normally released. Therefore, inadequate slow-wave sleep may impact growth, a consequence that is also seen when sleep apnea fragments this sleep in children.

Prolonged wakefulness in both children and adults may affect the thyroid gland. Inadequate time spent sleeping seems to increase thyroid hormone release, with increased energy needs raising work demands.

Which Hormones Are Not Affected by Sleep Deprivation?

Fortunately, there are many other hormones that are seemingly not affected by sleep deprivation. These include many of the sex hormones. The full list of hormones not affected by too little sleep include:

  • Cortisol (stress hormone)
  • Adrenaline (also called epinephrine, the fight-or-flight response hormone)
  • Catecholamines (including epinephrine and norepinephrine)
  • Luteinizing Hormone (stimulates ovary and testicle function)
  • Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (stimulates ovary and testicle function)
  • Testosterone (stimulates sperm production in men)
  • Progesterone (promotes conditions for pregnancy in women)

In order to prevent the adverse effects of sleep deprivation, make sure you understand your individual sleep needs and try to obtain adequate rest on a nightly basis. If you are struggling with insomnia or your sleep seems to be of poor quality, get checked out by a sleep specialist to ensure you don’t require treatment to get the sleep you and your body need.


Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." Elsevier. 5th edition. 2011.

Spiegel, K. “Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function.” The Lancet. October 23, 1999. 354:1435-1439.

Spiegel, K. et al. “Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men Is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite.” Annals of Internal Medicine. December 7, 2004. 141:846-851.

Taheri, S. “Sleep and metabolism: Bringing pieces of the jigsaw together.” Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2007. 11:159-162.

Taheri, S. et al. “Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index (BMI).” Sleep. 2004. 27:146-147.

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