Why Sleep is So Important in Binge Eating Recovery
By Julie Kabat Friedman, PhD
Sleep is one of the most overlooked and one of the most important aspects of binge eating disorder recovery.
Good sleep offers many benefits to our physical and emotional health. Lack of sleep can affect our mood, our appetite and our eating behaviors. When we don’t sleep well, it is hard to maintain the quality of life that patients seek when they pursue binge eating disorder (BED) treatment.
The link between sleep and binge eating
Even though many of my patients have sleep issues, they are so accustomed to sleep deprivation that they do not mention sleep disturbance as an issue unless they are directly asked by their providers!
Patients who are sleep deprived often experience one or more of the following:
- They have stronger cravings to eat between dinner and bedtime.
- They report increased cravings for highly processed and highly palatable foods.
- They find their cravings “impossible” to resist when fatigued.
All of these can exacerbate the underlying tendency to binge. Another troubling behavior I see in my patients that lack sleep is that they often turn to bingeing instead of practicing self-care.
As an example, I am currently working with a patient who presented with sleep disturbances and also had difficulty managing work and life stressors. He would finally stop working for the night and he would be exhausted. Yet he would want to “stay up and enjoy my only free time of the day.” He had abandoned many pleasurable activities as they seemed “too hard” when he was fatigued. Then, he found he would experience strong cravings for binge eating at night when he was wanting to stay awake and relax. He got stuck in a vicious cycle of bingeing at night which further disturbed his sleep and exacerbated the problematic cycle over and over again each day.
Four ways to get better sleep
So here is the good news: sleep is a behavior. This means that sleep can be taught and modified like any other behavior! Here’s how:
- Set sleep and wake times — and be consistent.
Determine the time that you will go to sleep and wake up each day and stick to these times even if you do not sleep well. Choosing to sleep in later on the weekends — to catch up on sleep — will only disrupt your sleep cycle further. Try to keep sleep and wake times consistent within the hour, even on weekends.
What if you still can’t sleep? If you do have insomnia — even after setting consistent wake and sleep times — go ahead and get out of bed if you have been awake for more than 10 minutes. Don’t turn to your phone or the TV (easier said than done, I know). Cell phones and TVs have sufficient “light” to keep your brain stimulated and awake even when you are otherwise sleepy. Instead of a screen, read a book or magazine in dim lighting until you feel sleepy again. When you feel sleepy, return to bed. Repeat if needed.
Be patient. It CAN take time to create good sleep habits and reset your circadian rhythms (body clock). Over time, if you are consistent with your good sleep habits, you should have fewer sleepless nights.
- Understand how sleep affects your mood.
Improving your sleep habits is important because it could help to improve your mental health. And with 85 percent of binge eaters also struggling with a comorbid mood or anxiety disorder, sleep should be a high priority. Focusing on improving the quality of your sleep will lead to less negative affect, more resilience and better coping with life’s stressors.
- Modify your morning behaviors.
When attempting to improve their sleep, most people focus on their nighttime routines only. What you do in the morning upon awakening is also crucial to improving sleep. Get out of bed immediately after your alarm wakes you up. Even if you are tired from poor sleep the night before, pressing “snooze” will return you to a shallow sleep state that will leave you even less refreshed and feeling worse in the morning and throughout the day.
On our residential unit, we have patients wake up with an alarm. Then they have a small dose of caffeine and exposure to bright light. They will either move briefly outside or they will sit in front of a lightbox and move briefly to get the body feeling more “awake.”
- Seek professional help, if necessary.
If you are having trouble changing your sleep and eating habits, professional treatment may be necessary. In treatment, your therapist can work with you to evaluate, monitor and modify your sleep and eating habits in the safety and comfort of a treatment setting. If you need help finding a treatment center near you, just contact us and we’ll do our best to help.
Prioritize sleep. Give yourself the energy to put towards recovery and create a life worth living!
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Julie Kabat Friedman, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.