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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.


Stress, Eating and Sleep

Sleep changes what you eat; stress changes how you sleep

daria shevtsova at pexels
Source: daria shevtsova at pexels

Stress makes you sleepless. Insomnia makes you hungry, especially ravenous for fat and sugar. You eat more, gain weight, get more stressed.

Then repeat.

When expectations exceed realities stress becomes one’s constant companion. The plane flight to see your ailing mother is delayed, then cancelled. Your kid forgets his homework and you can’t leave work to bring it to class, your first thought that this will lead to an instant fail that will ultimately produce a bad mathematics grade and the resultant collapse of hopes of his attending a competitive college (thankfully your daughter brought her homework.) Or your work day begins with a demand for ransomware for hacked cloud computing software you don’t own or control - but need to get anything done.

What do people do when stressed? They eat. Stress eating is more than a phenomenon. It’s a national industry. Cue perhaps the most profitable part of food production: snacks.

But stress makes people stop sleeping. And sleep and overeating are deeply connected.

Psychophysiologic Insomnia

Sleep should be as easy as breathing. Often it is not.

When it becomes difficult to fall or stay asleep, psychophysiologic insomnia is the frequent result.

It’s a long name for a common problem. Worrying about sleep, thinking sleep, impedes sleep.

If you had to alertly tell your body to breathe before each breath, much of your consciousness would concern air. When you try to tell your body you need to sleep, much of consciousness concerns rest.

Which is not a good thing. For body clocks to work and help put us into the regenerative function called sleep, we need to be reasonably calm and relaxed. Worrying about sleep does the opposite.

Here's a standard example: a normal, happy sleeper gets a call at three in the morning that the software at work is not working. She tries to correct the problem, but does not sleep well the rest of the night.

The next day’s work is particularly stressful. Several cokes or coffees are added to daily intake, including a Danish or two. The next night she falls asleep but wakes at the exact same hour she was called the night before. Looking at the clock, she wearily return to bed.

The following morning hunger is more pronounced, but our hero is not going to succumb to sleeping “aids.” She carefully goes to bed earlier, reading a diverting mystery to get her mind off her terrible tired-wired feeling, and dully falls asleep – only to once again wake at 3 AM.

At this point, sleep converts into her second or third job. Sleep aids are reluctantly ingested along with a series of internet posts on “just how to get to sleep.” But the body keeps duly waking at 3 AM. More tea, coffee, and cokes are drunk to keep work performance high, until falling asleep proves difficult. The lure of Ambien and Lunesta becomes increasingly arresting.

The really nasty part of psychophysiologic insomnia is that it makes more of itself. A stressed out body becomes more stressed. Less sleep leads not to the normal compensation of recovery sleep but to ever increasing arousal. Keep people with psychophysiologic insomnia up all night, and unlike most other types of insomniacs, they sleep less over the next 24 hours.

And accompanying the sleeplessness comes hunger. As Eve van Cauter’s group frequently demonstrates, keep people up part of the night and they begin to look diabetic. They crave fat and sugar. In one meta-analysis looking at many combined studies, partially sleep deprived people take in an average extra 385 calories a day.

You don’t need to eat those additional calories very long to gain weight. And the bigger people get, the less efficient their sleep.

Psychophysiologic Insomnia and Stress

Insomnia is really common. Psychophysiologic insomnia is particularly common among working people, particularly those with 24/7 jobs, children or dependent parents. With little time left for rest, getting less rest produces cascading effects on weight, mood, and performance.

Fortunately there are many ways to deny stress. One is to recognize that not every night will produce a glorious sleep. Even “perfect” sleepers wake 15-20 times a night. Perhaps only 5% of the population sleep “well” every night. In the Internet Age it’s ordinary to be woken.

But the human body always learns. And one of the best ways is to get more sleep is to take naps. Short naps in the middle of the day often compensate for poor sleep at night. And they’re more available on non-work days.

Stress also responds to exercise, meditation, and mindfulness, even to the realization that sleep itself should never be viewed as work but as one of the joys of life. There are hundreds of ways of getting better sleep.

Stress is normal. So is occasionally poor sleep. And a biologically intelligent approach to stress, which views it as an issue with thousands of possible solutions, can lead to greater ease in dealing with endless challenges of daily living.

Problems are always present. A cognitive approach to see one's world in terms of solutions, rather than endless difficulties, can provide solace even when help seems impossible.

Including in the middle of a hungry, sleepless night.


About the Author

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.