In this blog post, I will talk about how important it is to have healthy sleeping habits so it supports your body’s recovery rather than making it worse. Providing your body with enough rest and sleep is crucial for healing! Just as eating enough and stopping all calorie compensation behaviors. But oftentimes we solely focus on food and forget our body’s primarily restoration time – a good night’s sleep!
Also, I will explain what is something called Circadian Rhythm and why it’s important to sync your body to this natural rhythm. I will explain how it affects your energy levels, hormones, metabolism, and even hunger cues – all of these need to be healed for your body to fully recover.
What is circadian rhythm?
So what is circadian rhythm? In short, it’s our biological clock that is closely tied to the 24-hour rise and fall of the sun. During the 24-hour cycle, our body secretes various chemicals and enzymes that regulate our biological clock. Yes, we as humans are connected to the earth and its natural rhythms. We are designed to work aligned with nature – when the sun rises we should be ready to face the day with enough energy and when the sun falls our body should start to wind down, getting ready for good night sleep.
However, our world nowadays is not very supportive of this natural built-in system of our body and it can easily become messed up. We have electronic devices (TV, phone, computer) illuminating blue light from the screens that suppress our body’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. We stay up until 2 am because we have the ability to use indoor lighting that can send our body the signal it’s still daytime. We drink too much coffee so the cortisol levels in our bloodstream make us energetic when we actually could use rest instead. We are stressed out about school, work, or from watching negative stuff from the media. All of these things mess up our circadian rhythm and it will affect our health.
The circadian rhythm is responsible for a host of different hormones and neurotransmitters of our body that make us awake and energetic. It drives hormones related to our appetite, metabolism, stress. Almost every hormonal system of our body is tied to the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is best described as having these peaks and valleys of energy levels throughout the day and night. The peak should be at the daytime giving us plenty of energy to live our lives and dealing with everyday tasks. The valley should be during night time when the energy levels naturally drop making us ready for a good night of rest and regeneration.
Ideally, the peaks should be high when you have high energy levels and the valleys should be low enough you fall asleep easily and sleep until the morning restfully. But our modern world disrupts this with artificial lighting, blue light emitting screens, high-stress levels caused by our hectic lifestyle and by using stimulants to give us energy such as drinking too much coffee. And because of this the peaks and valleys are flattened out – during day time we have low energy so we tend to be tired and even sleepy and during night time we feel overstimulated and can’t fall asleep easily. So we develop daytime fatigue and nighttime insomnia symptoms.
In which ways messed up circadian rhythm affects our health?
As said earlier circadian rhythm is responsible for a whole bunch of hormonal systems of our body. For example, the hormone leptin that’s responsible for adjusting your body fat levels. Also cortisol, the stress hormone. If your cortisol levels are too high during the night time (because your sleeping patterns are messed up) the leptin levels in your body will increase. So you can gain weight just by having a messed up sleeping schedule. This is a stress response of your body! Having an unhealthy sleeping schedule, on a physiological level is a form of chronic stress which can lead to adrenal fatigue.
Circadian rhythm also affects your thyroid hormones that regulate the speed of your metabolism and even your hunger hormones. During the evening it should be natural for our body to decrease producing cortisol and increase producing serotonin that can lower your appetite, making you calm and sleepy, ready for a good night rest. But with an unhealthy circadian rhythm, this system is rather upside down – we feel most energetic during the evening with a huge appetite and during the morning our appetite is almost non-existent and we might need coffee to get the day started.
Matt Stone, one of the leading experts today on metabolic health notes that “People with various signs and symptoms of metabolic syndrome seem to almost always have circadian rhythms that are totally out of whack.” ( from here.)
In terms of eating disorder recovery can you now see just HOW negatively the irregular, out of whack sleeping schedule and habits affect your recovery? The hormonal and metabolic recovery?… Yes? Good! So now you know you must address this issue and fix your circadian rhythm.
How to fix your circadian rhythm?
- Go to bed early and wake up early. Ideally, I would say be in bed, ready to sleep by 10 pm. Wake up by 7-8 am. This is not a die-hard rule but generally what to stick to. But don’t take it lightly! Don’t think you can go to bed at 2 am and just wake up at 11 am because you will still get the same hours of sleep, right? Nope, it’s not the same! Remember, our body needs to sleep during night hours and wake up in the morning with the sun. The difference is BIG!
- Get some natural light exposure in the morning and during the first part of the day. Natural light in the morning is a great way to reset the circadian rhythm and it actually promotes good sleep! Your body needs natural light so the internal biological clock can work as it should.
- Eat your breakfast. I know, you are used to your big night time meals, I get it. And during recovery, you should eat whenever. BUT, in terms of your energy levels, you need that well-sized breakfast to fix your circadian rhythm and in the long run, it will also help you to normalize the nighttime overeating sessions. This is not to say that you should start restricting food during night time, but your body needs food during the morning as well to support the natural circadian rhythm of your body! So start the morning with a filling breakfast! And I still recommend regular eating for recovery – eating every 2-3 hours, breakfast, lunch, dinner, also snacks in between as you like!
- Reduce caffeine, especially after lunch. Some people metabolize caffeine slower than others. For some, they can drink coffee at 6 pm and sleep great. But for some drinking it after 2 pm will affect their sleep negatively. For example, if I drink coffee after 1-2 pm it does affect my sleep! Now I drink 1 cup with my breakfast and I sleep soundly. Making this little adjustment was all I needed. And reducing caffeine also means things like green tea, black tea, soda and some foods like chocolate. But do not think you must now restrict chocolate! This is not the point. Having some at night might have no effect at all, so listen to your body!
- Reduce stress. Especially during the evening. Don’t watch violent movies or engage in any arguments. If you find yourself overthinking and worried use journaling as a way to clean your head from all the clutter that has been piled up. You want to be in a relaxed and calm state during the evening so it will be much easier for you to fall asleep. Before sleep listen to a calming meditation so you go to be with calming thoughts. Also, make sure you reduce your overall stress levels as well. This is KEY. Since if your body is in a state of stress we can experience waking up during the night because of the adrenaline spikes. Add in some calming practices such as meditation, listening to soothing music, deep breathing, reading a novel, taking a bath, spending time in nature etc.
- Reduce exposure to blue light during the evening. It’s best to close the TV and eliminate any blue light emitting electronic devices at least 1-2 hours before going to sleep. Blue light mimics daylight and suppresses melatonin production that actually helps you to fall asleep. If you absolutely must use your computer or phone in the evening I use an app called iFlux for my MacBook that changes the blue light to red light during the evening so it doesn’t affect my body’s natural clock. You can get it from here: https://justgetflux.com/. And my iPhone already has an option in my settings called Night Shift that turns blue light into red during evening hours. There are various apps available as well!
- Have a calming night routine. Dim down lights, take a hot bath with some Epsom salt, fix yourself a cup of sweet chamomile tea (good for sleep) and read a novel before bedtime. Make sure your bedroom is a bit colder than other rooms (open a window before going to bed), we sleep better with a bit cooler temperatures. Also, make sure the bedroom is dark, use an eye mask if needed. All this helps to promote good sleep.
- Supplements. You can also look into possibly taking some magnesium supplements or using magnesium oil. Stress depletes magnesium from our body, so adding some magnesium supplements in recovery can help calm the nervous system. Magnesium is critical for good sleep. Other things you might find helpful are iron and B vitamins. When we have been through a stressful period (like an eating disorder) our vitamin stores are depleted that will affect our sleep as well. But always consult your doctor before you make any changes!
And lastly, what I want to say is that do not feel bad when you can’t sleep or find yourself waking up. Very often we only add more stress by stressing about the fact that we can’t fall asleep! Know that just laying in bed is also resting your body. Forcing yourself to sleep doesn’t work as well. Do your best to follow the above practices and then just go to bed, whether to sleep or to just rest.
See the video below about insomnia and my experience with sleeping problems in recovery:
Cover photo: Shutterstock