Eating disorders can be challenging enough. Unfortunately, they are often accompanied by the not-so-strange bedfellows of difficulty with sleep.
In the United States, about 20 million women and girls and 10 million men and boys have struggled with with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating, or some other eating disorder at some time in their lives.
Many of them report a hard time getting the rest they need and suffer from both sleep disorders and eating disorders. About 100 million adults in the United States struggle with sleep and wakefulness disorders.
Lack of sleep plays a role in ramping up brain regions that trigger anxiety. Because of this, difficulties with sleep can make eating disorders even more trying. The reverse is also true. Eating disorders, because of the anxiety that accompanies them, can lead to nighttime restlessness and daytime drowsiness.
According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, seven out of ten of the people who report persistent stress or anxiety on a daily basis say they have trouble sleeping.
Sleep and your recovery
People living with bulimia and anorexia often report sleep disturbances that occur at bedtime or after falling asleep. Anorexia is fed by a tremendous anxiety, and people who are anxious report that the emotion actually keeps them up at night.
Many people living with anorexia report restlessness at bedtime and during the night. Chronic lack of sleep can, paradoxically, increase restlessness by ramping up anxiety. People suffering from sleep deprivation, in turn, can experience a spiral of anxiety caused by the physical and mental stress they experience due to not getting enough rest.
People living with bulimia and other disorders that involve bingeing may find that insufficient or poor-quality sleep can reduce their ability to control their impulses in stressful situations.
Sleep difficulties have also been shown to distort people’s sense of satisfying food intake. This is particularly unhelpful for people with eating disorders, who are already struggling to return to a healthy relationship with food.
How can you break this cycle?
While having to deal with both sleep and eating disorders at the same time can be discouraging, there is hope.
Both disordered eating and sleeping are treatable. These difficulties can be overcome.
Hope can be found in the benefits that come with a good night’s rest: better emotional regulation, newfound energy, and defense against infection and disease.
If you manage to sleep better, it is likely that your eating and the anxiety that underlies it will improve.
At the very least you will eliminate one big trigger that makes these trying conditions worse. How do you get there?
In order to get good rest, introduce as many steps of healthy sleep hygiene as you can. You don’t have to be perfect to see improvements! In this instance, perfect can be the enemy of the good.
Nevertheless, here are a few ideas to try:
- Get your bedroom dark when you sleep.
- Try not to nap more than 20 minutes during the day.
- Make sure the room you are sleeping in is slightly cooler and quiet.
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress that’s a good fit for you.
- Use earplugs if your partner snores or if your pet makes noises that wake you up at night.
- Starting about two hours prior to desired bedtime, try to stay away from electronic screens in order to minimize the rousing effect that the blue light has.
- Do not drink alcohol two or three hours prior to bedtime. Reaching for a nightcap is a mistake, since alcohol can leave us restless in the middle of the night or undermine the quality of our sleep throughout.
Don’t forget about tricks that kill two birds with one stone, easing both insomnia and anxiety. They include soothing rituals, like a warm bath or reading a calming book or taking a walk.
Consider listening to sleep meditation audio before bed. Meditation – the art of focusing on the present breath and moment, can help diminish stress and sleeplessness. You might, for example, consider using Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique, which helps some people fall asleep in only one minute.
Finally, talk to your friends, family, therapist, and doctors. Get their support as you develop good sleep habits, manage your anxiety, and progress in your recovery.