Eating Disorder Behavior Triggered by Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation can have significant consequences on both physical and mental health and trigger eating disorder behaviors. If you suffer with an eating disorder, knowing the consequences of sleep deprivation can help you recognize and avoid triggers that cause you to act out.
Here are some common effects of sleep deprivation. Look for effects that trigger your eating disorder.
Impaired Cognitive Function: Lack of sleep can lead to difficulties with concentration, memory, and overall
cognitive function. It becomes harder to focus, make decisions, and retain information. Sleep-deprived individuals may also experience slower reaction times and reduced problem-solving abilities.
You may reach for loads of sugar and fat to punch up your energy. You may binge out of fear when you can’t make decisions. You may push yourself physically to get control of your mind, obsess and not eat at all.
Increased Risk of Accidents: Sleep deprivation can impair coordination and reaction time, increasing the risk of accidents. This is particularly dangerous when operating machinery, driving a vehicle, or performing tasks that require alertness and quick reflexes.
You may reach for caffeine and sugar to increase your energy when you are exhausted. You may keep doughnuts, cookies, and candy on the passenger seat while you are driving to help keep your eyes open and soothe your anxiety. Fumbling with food wrappers while you are driving can contribute to accidents. Your concentration is impaired and interrupted.
Weakened Immune System: Sleep plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy immune system. Chronic sleep deprivation can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections, illnesses, and longer recovery times.
Illness may inhibit your appetite. If you have an eating disorder this can feel like a good thing, even a gift. You don’t want to eat. You will exploit this by trying not to eat at all. The thinner and lighter you get the better you feel emotionally. You feel you are in control. You feel powerful. But the fact is that you are losing life energy and putting yourself in serious jeopardy. Replenishing energy to your immune system, taking in nourishment to restore your health is severely limited when you are caught in the false belief that not eating gives you strength and power.
Mood Disturbances: Lack of sleep can significantly impact mood and emotional well-being. Sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to experience irritability, mood swings, increased stress levels, and feelings of sadness or depression. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate underlying mental health conditions or contribute to the development of mood disorders.
Strong or uneven emotions lead to emotional eating. When you live with an eating disorder, food or lack of food, is the first go to solution for an emotional issue. Irritated? Eat cookies. Stressed? Eat or refuse food altogether. Sad or depressed? Eat starches or fats or isolate and refuse food.
Increased Risk of Chronic Health Conditions: Prolonged sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of various chronic health conditions. These include obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, and compromised metabolic function.
If the health conditions or the warnings from your doctor about the health conditions cause you anxiety, without eating disorder treatment you may be triggered to eat more to soothe yourself. Or refuse food to experience a sense of power over these warnings.
Decreased Performance: Productivity and Sleep deprivation impairs cognitive abilities and reduces overall productivity. It becomes more challenging to perform at peak levels, meet deadlines, and maintain consistent work quality. Persistent sleep deprivation can also impact academic performance in students.
When you can’t live up to your own standards you will struggle as you deal with lowered expectations and disappointment from others, shame at missing deadlines, fear as you can’t keep up with your work. Living with a mind governed by an eating disorder you will resort to the eating disorder behaviors that will soothe you and give you false promises about doing better.
Negative Effects on Physical Appearance: Lack of sleep can lead to dark circles under the eyes, pale or dull skin, and an overall tired or aged appearance. Chronic sleep deprivation can accelerate the aging process, contribute to the formation of wrinkles, and impair the body's natural healing and rejuvenation processes.
Body dysmorphia is part of the eating disorder constellation of symptoms. When you see yourself suffering from lack of sleep you may magnify the degradation of your appearance. With that will come stories you tell yourself that focus on negatives. You will reach for what you believe will soothe you, and that is food or the lack of it.
Eating or starving to soothe yourself is a false promise. You may feel a numbness when you binge or starve and equate that with soothing. But you also have a fantasy that says, when the numbness stops, you’ll return to a life that is better. What triggered you will be gone. Your life will be normal. But that’s not what happens. You return to your life, and you are further along the negative path because you did too little to regain your footing, too little to stabilize yourself so you could build from where you had fallen.
Adequate sleep is not a cure for an eating disorder, but inadequate sleep can make an eating disorder much worse.
If you resist sleep after trying several sleep strategies, then you may need an in-depth psychotherapist who can help you develop and grow through your resistance. This is a kind of therapy that takes time, but it also goes deep into your psyche to help you develop naturally beyond your current limits. As you develop you find that you don’t need the eating disorder to cope. You develop the stamina, strength and creativity to cope based on who you are.
It's important to prioritize quality sleep and establish healthy sleep habits to prevent the consequences of sleep deprivation. Most adults require 7-9 hours of sleep per night, while teenagers and children need even more. If you consistently struggle with sleep deprivation or sleep-related issues, it is advisable to consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation and guidance. That may be a sleep specialist and/or a psychotherapist who understands sleep deprivation as resistance to buried psychological issues.
Eating Disorders and Sleep: Learn how one affects the other
Joanna Poppink, MFT, is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in eating disorder recovery, stress, PTSD and adult development.
She is licensed in CA, AZ, OR, FL, UT. Author of Book: Healing Your Hungry Heart: recovering from your eating disorder
Appointments are virtual.https://www.eatingdisorderrecovery.net For a free telephone consultation e-mail her at