Eating disorders are often accompanied by anxiety, stress, and/or depression – which all impact sleep and sleeping patterns. Under or over eating can also have a negative effect on your sleep. Furthermore, when you’re trying to make significant changes in your life – for instance when you’re in recovery – your mind might be in overdrive, creating further anxiety and making it difficult to fall asleep at night. It’s no wonder so many of you talk about troubles with sleep or feeling exhausted!
Since it was #WorldSleepDay last Friday I felt inspired to offer you a compilation of what I have learned about sleep throughout my life and studies. So here goes!
If you haven’t been sleeping properly for as little as a few nights, it’s likely your body’s natural rhythm is out of sync. Our brains have an internal clock that runs on a 24 hour basis and regulates all of our body’s different functions. This internal clock tells our bodies when to wake up, when we are hungry, when we are cold or warm, when we need hydration, and when to sleep – to name a few. When it comes to sleeping, our internal clock tells our brain to release a hormone called melatonin at a certain time every day (usually when it is dark outside) signalling to our body to start slowing things down in preparation for sleep. When preparing for sleep your body temperature drops and your heart rate and metabolism slow, which contribute to that heavy feeling in your body that draws you to your bed.
When this natural rhythm, also called your circadian rhythm, is disrupted our brains will become confused and they might release melatonin at different intervals, such as during the day instead of at night. This makes you want to sleep during the day, and stay awake at night – similar to jet lag!
Disruption of your circadian rhythm can occur in various ways, such as: if you can’t sleep at night and you form a habit of sleeping for too long during the day (some research suggests that the optimal nap time is 20 minutes and sleeping for longer during the day can actually leave you feeling LESS rested); changing time zones; pulling a few “all-nighters” to study or work; shift work (alternating between working during the day and night); too much caffeine late in the day; anxiety/stress; or even being in an environment with too much natural or unnatural light at night.
One of the best things we can do to re-regulate our circadian rhythm is to set a designated time to go to sleep and wake up every day. Unfortunately, if you’re having trouble sleeping one of the worst things you can do for your internal clock is to try and “catch up” on sleep at the weekends. Our bodies require a certain amount of sleep in any given 24 hour period and if it hasn’t gotten what it needs Monday-Friday then doubling up on sleep at the weekends won’t help it to “catch up”. In fact, if you try to “catch-up” on sleep it will likely only confuse your internal clock even more! So when trying to regulate your sleep, set yourself a reasonable and consistent time to go to sleep and wake up every day. Everybody is different though, so the amount of sleep you require in order to feel alert and rested will differ from someone else’s.
Your bedroom environment is also crucial for your sleep patterns. Recent research suggests that the type of light emitted from electronic devices such as mobile phones, iPads, and even televisions can confuse the brain in to thinking it’s not yet time to release melatonin. It’s helpful to create a technology free zone in your bedroom before you go to sleep. If you enjoy watching your favourite TV show before bed, try and do so in another room instead of from your bed. Similarly, if you need to catch up on social media, try and do so before entering your bedroom. If you’re constantly associating your bed with watching TV, checking social media, reading the news, or doing anything other than sleeping then your brain and body won’t naturally switch in to “time-to-sleep-mode” when you lie down in your bed. So, try and train your body and mind to use your bed for sleeping and little or nothing else.
If you find that your mind starts to race as soon as you lie down in bed try doing a 10 minute meditation to settle your thoughts. I find breathing meditation, where you focus exclusively on your breath coming in and out of your body, helps me to feel calm and ready for sleep. You might also find a progressive muscle relaxation meditation helpful. In this type of meditation you close your eyes and sweep down your body whilst gently tensing different muscle groups for 5-10 seconds and then releasing them. Try this website if you want more information on progressive muscle relaxation and other bedtime relaxation techniques:
Your pre-bed rituals are also important for sleep and it’s helpful to try and do the same things every night before bed to help regulate your body’s natural clock. For example, every night I spend time washing my face, brushing my teeth, and then moisturising my skin before bed. Because I do this every single night before I climb in to my bed, it helps me to wind down and feel tired. It’s also helpful if you can try not to eat or drink too close to bedtime. It’s more difficult for your stomach to digest food when you’re lying down, and it can leave you with indigestion and acid reflux (that uncomfortable burping up of stomach acid). While it’s important that you consume enough water throughout the day to stay hydrated, try not to drink anything an hour before bed. An empty bladder when you fall asleep will decrease your chances of waking up in the middle of the night to run to the bathroom!
Also, sometimes having some consistent background noise as you fall asleep can help to drown out any noises from outside or elsewhere in your home. There are many apps you can download that are offer an array of sounds like ocean waves, thunderstorms, or rain. A personal favourite of mine is called “Rain, Rain”.
Finally, you can also find a wide range of nutritional supplements for sleep. I’ll refrain from listing them here because you should always discuss with your nutritionist and/or GP first!
As a whole, when you’re having trouble sleeping one of the most helpful things to do is to create a bedtime routine. Also, have compassion for your body – it’s just confused! – so try and give it a week or two to regulate itself once you settle on a routine that feels comfortable for you.
If I’ve left anything out or if you have any sleep tips that you find helpful, please leave them in the comments below.
Wishing you all restful sleep,