Overeating and poor sleep often go hand-in-hand. Both are common problems experienced by large swathes of the American population.
39.8% of adults and 18.5% of children struggle with obesity, according to the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Conditions linked to obesity such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers were some of the leading causes of preventable death.
Overeating can wreak havoc on your sleep, often causing secondary conditions like sleep apnea and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, or heartburn). Depending on what and when you eat, you may also have a harder time falling asleep or sleeping through the night. And as we all know, sleep deprivation leads to a higher risk of immune problems, hormonal problems, heart disease, and other medical conditions.
In this article, we’ll discuss the link between overeating and sleep, and how to maintain a healthy diet that will help lead to better sleep.
The Relationship Between Overeating and Sleep
Our body controls hunger by way of two hormones: ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry, and leptin, which suppresses your appetite. When we don’t get enough sleep, the body produces more ghrelin and less leptin, leading to hunger cravings. Unsurprisingly, studies have found that sleep-deprived individuals choose larger portion sizes.
Sleep-deprived bodies also increase the production of an endocannabinoid that makes us crave foods high in sugar and fat, and consume more calories. A study published in Sweden found that just one night of sleep loss was enough to cause changes at the molecular level more conducive to gaining fat and reducing muscle mass.
Weight gain can also cause sleeping problems. A recent study identified the role of insulin in regulating our body clock. Insulin is a hormone that is released by the pancreas in response to higher blood sugar levels after you eat. The authors of this study suggested that by eating at strange times, such as during the night, the resulting surge in insulin may throw off your circadian rhythm.
A Brazilian study found that eating close to bedtime negatively affected sleep quality. Another study that found that a diet rich in saturated fat and sugar but low in fiber led to a more restless night, indicating that the types of foods you eat can also affect sleep quality.
Sleep Apnea and Overeating
Overweight people have a higher chance of developing obstructive sleep apnea. This is a sleeping disorder in which the airway is repeatedly blocked while sleeping, which causes an individual to wake up multiple times a night gasping for air. People often don’t realize they are waking up from sleep apnea, but it affects the quality of their sleep and causes daytime sleepiness.
While some people naturally have anatomical features that predispose them to developing sleep apnea, other people develop sleep apnea as their throat gains extra tissue that constricts the airway. Losing just a little weight can often reduce the severity of sleep apnea or make it go away altogether. Of course, it may be more difficult to lose weight when you have sleep apnea, since sleep deprivation often causes people to crave more high-calorie snacks.
Why Do We Overeat?
We turn to food when we’re sad or depressed, happy, stressed, or bored. We may share a meal and a few drinks with family and friends, or treat ourselves to dessert when we feel we deserve a reward. In some cases, we take overeating a step too far and this becomes unhealthy. Here are some common overeating causes.
Signs of Overeating
Even if you’re of average weight, you may be overeating if you identify with some of the overeating symptoms on the following list:
- Eating past the point of satiation or until you feel uncomfortable (e.g. stomach discomfort, feeling bloated)
- Eating faster than usual
- Eating even though you’re not hungry
- Continuing to eat even though you’ve lost interest in your food
- Turning to food for comfort when you feel sad, angry, lonely, or bored
- Getting hot flashes while eating, or stopping for a breather during a meal
- Consistently having seconds and thirds
- Eating more calories than you need
- Eating to prevent hunger pangs before you actually get them
- Feeling embarrassed, disgusted, or guilty about how much you eat
- Feeling you’ve lost control over how much you eat
- Strange eating habits such as hiding food or eating alone out of shame
- Weight gain and/or preoccupation with body weight, which may lead to an unwillingness to take part in activities
- Decreased libido
Luckily, there are many steps you can take to cut back on overeating. Stock your fridge and pantry with a variety of fruit, vegetables, and other healthy snacking foods - but be realistic and allow yourself the occasional treat to avoid binges. Make sure you get enough fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
Try regulating your eating schedule by listening to your hunger cues for a few days and eating only when you’re hungry, and only until you feel 80% full. Eat more slowly, more frequently, and in smaller meals to help boost your metabolism and regulate your insulin and lipid levels. Try keeping a food diary or using “edible stop signs” like color-coding to encourage yourself to stick to proper portion sizes. Avoid dining out, which often leads to overeating - and if you do dine out, don’t feel compelled to keep up with your friends.
Practice mindful eating, recognizing and appreciating the food you’re consuming instead of gobbling it down in front of the TV. This will help your brain realize you’re full. Use mindfulness or yoga to work through the emotions such as depression, stress, or boredom that are making you overeat, or try tackling your problems head-on. Meditation, exercise, and social support can also go a long way in reducing stress and helping you stick to your goals.
To sleep better, avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, heavy foods, saturated fats, and refined carbohydrates. Stick with whole grains, nuts, and lean protein rich in B vitamins such as fish, eggs, or poultry. Stay hydrated and avoid overeating before bed, instead drinking a hot cup of herbal tea or warm milk - the tryptophan in warm milk may also help you drift off. Try to incorporate foods rich in melatonin and serotonin into your diet. Walnuts, almonds, tart cherries, bananas, pineapple, oranges, and kiwis all contain melatonin, which can help you sleep more soundly. If you suffer from heartburn, avoid alcohol and fatty or spicy foods before sleeping so you’re not kept awake at night.
Learn More About Overeating and Sleep
There are many resources that you can turn to for more information and help on both sleep and overeating. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a hotline you can call if you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder.
- American Sleep Apnea Association. This page provides information on sleep apnea and access to resources and subsidized CPAP machines.
- Overeaters Anonymous. OA is a support group for people who struggle with body weight issues.
- Harvard University: Sleep Health and Education. This website presents scientific research on sleep in a way that is accessible to the general public.
- National Institute of Mental Health. The NIMH promotes the use of research in understanding and treating mental disorders, including eating disorders.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. This page provides information, support, and the chance to participate in clinical studies for sufferers of sleep apnea.
- John Hopkins: Obstructive Sleep Apnea. This video provides a short overview of the causes and symptoms of sleep apnea.
- Eating Recovery Center: Compulsive Eating Overview. This video briefly explains what compulsive eating is and provides information for getting help.
- Cleveland Clinic: 9 Strategies to Stop Overeating. This video gives tips on how to curb overeating.