Why are sleep and eating patterns important to mental health?


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By: Ashley Hemrich, M.A., Regional Director of Clinical Partnerships

Mental Health Month was a time to reflect on the importance of adequate sleep and eating patterns when it comes to a healthy physical and emotional well-being. We have all been there – not enough sleep the night previously = lethargy, irritability, foggy mind, and just plain out of sorts, the next day. In many of these instances, we are already thinking about when we can sleep again as soon as we awake.

What is the Circadian Rhythm?

Think about your typical day. Do you notice that some parts of the day you feel energized and ready to take on the day and at other times, you feel lethargic and ready for a nap? According to the National Sleep Foundation, we as humans, operate on a Circadian Rhythm. The Circadian Rhythm is the body’s 24-hour internal sleep/wake clock. For many of us, our most significant decrease in energy occurs in the middle of the night (between 2:00 am-4:00 am) and after lunch (between 1:00 pm-4:00 pm). Yes, the 3:00 pm lull is the real deal folks! If we receive proper sleep throughout the night, our changes in the Circadian Rhythm may not be as strongly recognized. Conversely, if we are sleep deprived, we will be more likely to notice changes in alertness and sleepiness. It is also important to note that everyone’s Circadian Rhythm is different, especially for those who are morning people, night owls, or have an occupation that requires overnight hours. Moreover, our Circadian Rhythms tend to change as we grow and develop. So, how many hours of sleep per night is considered “appropriate” for each of us?

While everyone is different in their sleep patterns, below is a universal “rule of thumb” for each generation according to the National Sleep Foundation and a multidisciplinary panel of medical and psychological experts:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours/day
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours/day
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours/day
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours/day
  • School-Aged Children (6-13 years): 9-11 hours/day
  • Adolescents (14-17 years): 8-10 hours/day
  • Younger Adults (18-25 years): 7-9 hours/day
  • Adults (26-64 years): 7-9 hours/day
  • Older Adults (65+ years): 7-8 hours/day

What exactly happens to our brains during sleep?

As we know, the brain is a very powerful tool and one that should be given much care on a regular basis. Without getting too deep into the scientific jargon, let’s explore the brain functioning while sleeping. According to John Peever and Brian Murray as quoted in the Scientific American online journal, sleep reenergizes our body’s cells and plays a crucial role in regulating our mood, appetite, and libido. Many of us believe that our brain “shuts off” while sleeping, much like the phrase “out like a light,” when in all actuality, our brain is actively working in a series of meticulous stages of sleep. Our brain actually works harder when we sleep as opposed to when we are awake! With the use of an Electroencephalography (EEG), researchers can examine human brain waves, as well as measurements of the eyes and limbs. Each night our brain progresses through slow waves of sleep in which our muscles relax, and our heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature begin to decrease. If we wake during this transition from wakefulness to sleep, we often feel startled and may remember fragmented thoughts, but not active dreams. Our brain then moves into deep slow-wave sleep to rapid eye movement (REM) rest. During REM sleep, active dreaming takes place and typically involves paralysis of the body’s muscles, except our breathing and eye movement. Also, during this time, our heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and sexual desire may increase. The first period of REM sleep typically lasts about 10-15 minutes. Throughout the night, we usually alternate between slow wave sleep and REM sleep, with prolonged REM sleep and weakened slow wave sleep upon awakening.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Human Body


What is the relationship between sleep patterns and eating disorders?

For those suffering from eating disorders, the sleep-wake cycle appears to be a little bit more complicated. As humans, our primary sources of energy are sleep and food. When we deprive our bodies of one source of energy, we are subsequently depriving ourselves of both sources of energy.

How? Well, as the graphic above depicts, sleep helps to balance our hormones, as well as our hunger and fullness cues. When we are sleep deprived, those cues decrease and after much-prolonged sleep deprivation, may disappear entirely. Conversely, when our body does not receive the appropriate sustainable nutrition, we often mimic symptoms of sleep deprivation (e.g., increased heart rate, impaired cognition, depression, anxiety, unbalanced hormones, the disappearance of hunger and fullness cues, etc.).

According to Kim and colleagues, approximately half of female clients suffering from anorexia or bulimia experience sleep problems, including 33% having difficulty falling asleep and 18% wake during the night. Also, clients suffering from binge eating disorder experience greater sleep issues, including poor sleep quality and shorter sleep duration, when compared to average weight individuals. As we continue to understand this connection between sleep issues and eating disorders, we can also become more mindful of developing preventative measures and intervention techniques in treatment settings.

What are some valuable tips for appropriate sleep?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, below are some valuable practices to obtain restful sleep and daytime alertness:

  • Spend an appropriate amount of time asleep in bed
    • Not too little or too excessive.
    • This trains your body to know when it is time to sleep and awake
  • Establish a routine
    • Try to prepare for bedtime around the same time each day
    • Also, indulge in relaxing activities (e.g. warm bath or shower, reading a book, etc.) to help your body recognize that it is bedtime
  • Establish a pleasant sleep environment
    • Your mattress, pillows, and room temperature should be comfortable for you
      • Room temperature varies for each person; however, 60-67 degrees has been shown to elicit optimal sleep
    • Turn off the bright lights! (This also includes cell phone lights and television screens)
    • Consider utilizing devices (e.g. blackout curtains, ear plugs, fans, etc.) that also make the room more conducive for relaxation
  • Limit daytime naps to 20-30 minutes
    • Napping is not the equivalent to nighttime sleep; however, a short nap has been shown to improve mood, alertness, and job performance
  • Avoid stimulants close to bedtime
    • Caffeine and nicotine have been proven to disrupt sleep patterns so try to limit your intake when approaching bedtime
      Moderate exercise
      Moderate exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality. As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, cycling) can greatly improve sleep quality
    • Conversely, avoid strenuous exercises (e.g. cardio, weight lifting) prior to bedtime as it increases your alertness and does not allow for the best quality of sleep
  • Avoid eating close to bedtime
    • As mentioned previously, your body works on two sources of energy. When you eat a big meal prior to bedtime, your body is trained to awaken, which can greatly disrupt your sleep-wake cycle.
      Also, many heavy foods commonly trigger indigestion and painful heartburn that can disrupt sleep patterns, as well.
      Ensure an adequate amount of natural lighting
      Maintain darkness for sleep and sunlight for the day
    • This may not always be the case for those who work an overnight occupation; however, again, ensure that the room is darkened during sleep to maintain the sleep/wake cycle

As a society, the more we are in tune with the connection between our minds and bodies, the more we can adjust to changes within our environments. As we receive consistent adequate sleep with a balanced nourishment regimen, we can begin to notice tremendous positive changes in our physical and emotional well-being.


And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Exodus 33:14

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