Why Sleep is so Important in Eating Disorder Treatment
We all know that sleep is good for us but it’s only relatively recently that we’re beginning to understand just how good for us it actually is.
Countless studies have shown that sleep impacts almost every facet of our existence. While science now reliably informs us that getting more rest makes us happier, healthier and more productive people. Hooray!
That’s why we no longer hear CEOs or politicians boasting about existing on just 4 hours’ kip a night. Instead, organisations like Google, Uber and Ben & Jerrys are all actively encouraging their staff to get more sleep, even if it’s at work – going as far as installing high-tech “sleep pods” in their offices. Nice.
But why is sleep relevant to eating disorders? Well, sleep and mental health are strongly linked – the better we sleep, the more capable we are of regulating our emotions, the more positive our outlook and the more self-confident we become. Allow me to explain a little more...
Sleep, mood and mental health
We often hear a lot about the physical benefits of good sleep. What’s less widely known is that sleep plays an unbelievably important role in mental health.
It goes like this. When we sleep, numerous important processes take place. One of which involves the nervous system attempting to regulate the levels of hormones and neurotransmitters that swirl around our bodies after the hardships of the day. If our sleep is broken, this process is interrupted; which can lead to imbalances.
These imbalances can, in the short term, lead to difficulties controlling our emotions (mood swings); and in the longer term can often contribute to pre-existing psychological issues. Yikes.
Such is the link between poor sleep and mental health that insomniacs are a whopping twenty times more likely to suffer from a stress-related condition as people who sleep well.
Individuals with eating disorders often suffer from depression and other stress-related disorders; either as a precursor to, or as a result of, their condition. Getting more sleep will have a substantial impact on their ability to see the world and themselves in a more positive light.
Sleep, appetite and serotonin levels
For those familiar with eating disorders, the word “serotonin” has probably appeared on your radar before. To recap, serotonin is a neurotransmitter – it helps to control many functions in the human body, appetite being a major one.
As far as appetite is concerned, it’s unsurprising that sufferers of both anorexia and bulimia have considerably altered levels of the neurotransmitter than individuals without an eating disorder. Sometimes the levels are far too low, and in other cases, much too high.
So where does sleep come into all of this? Well, one of serotonin’s other functions is that it helps to regulate sleep cycles. So when people with eating disorders sleep badly or don’t get enough sleep, they’re adding pressure to a nervous system that’s already seriously compromised. Uh-oh.
One way to regulate serotonin levels is to get back into a healthy sleep cycle. The body, mind and especially the nervous system – that’s responsible for hormone and neurotransmitter levels – adore routine.
Sleep, stress and cortisol reduction
Many people with eating disorders turn to food as a form of stress relief. And chief among our stress hormones is a little fella called cortisol.
Cortisol is the hormone that gives you that nervous, butterfly-in-the-stomach, feeling when you’ve missed a deadline at work. While it’s essential for survival, evolutionarily speaking, in modern society it often does us more harm than good.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels have been recorded in sufferers of both anorexia and bulimia. And since the time for regulating our stress hormones occurs while we sleep, well… it ain’t rocket science.
Because while it’s currently unclear whether changes in stress hormones are a cause or a result of eating disorders, one thing is certain: when we sleep soundly, the levels of cortisol in our system are reduced. This is one of the reasons why we feeling so relaxed in the morning.
Missing sleep, or suffering from broken sleep, means that stress levels rise and with them comes a host of negative physical and mental consequences – especially for eating disorder sufferers.
In the meantime, better sleep equals less stress; and less stress means that symptoms of eating disorders will be easier to handle. In addition to sleep, mindfulness meditation can play a strong role in reducing cortisol levels in our system. It also encourages healthy sleep; so a win-win, really!
When it comes to the root causes of both sleeping and eating disorders, there is a lot we still don’t know. What’s certain, however, is that better sleep will leave an eating disorder sufferer better prepared – both physically and mentally – to tackle their condition.
Happy sleeping, healthy eating!