Why It Matters: Eating and Sleep Disorders

Why learn about eating and sleep disorders?

A person stretching in bed.

Figure 1. Good sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.

Eating and sleeping are essential to human survival. Humans need food to survive to promote healthy development. Eating food provides nutrients to build bones and grow muscle, regulate and make hormones, breathe, and produce energy. In order for humans to continue developing, sleep is fundamental. In this module, you will learn about the fundamentals of hunger and sleep and how if there is disruption, there can be significant health consequences.

Sleep is a basic necessity of life, as important to our health and well-being as air, food, and water. When we sleep well, we wake up feeling refreshed, alert, and ready to face daily challenges. When we don’t, every part of our lives can suffer. Our jobs, relationships, productivity, health, and safety (and that of those around us) are all put at risk. There are many common myths about sleep. We hear them frequently and may even experience them far too often. Sometimes the myths can be characterized as “old wives tales,” but there are other times the incorrect information can be serious and even dangerous. The National Sleep Foundation has compiled this list of common myths about sleep and the facts that dispel them.

There are quite a few misconceptions regarding eating and sleep disorders, so let’s begin by dispelling some common myths about sleep.

Myth #1. Daytime sleepiness always means a person isn’t getting enough sleep.

Excessive daytime sleepiness is a condition in which an individual feels very drowsy during the day and has an urge to fall asleep when he/she should be fully alert and awake. The condition, which can occur even after getting enough night-time sleep, can be a sign of an underlying medical condition or sleep disorder such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea. These problems can often be treated, and symptoms should be discussed with a physician. Daytime sleepiness can be dangerous and puts a person at risk for drowsy driving, injury, and illness and can impair mental abilities, emotions, and performance.

Myth #2: You can “cheat” on the amount of sleep you need.

Sleep experts say most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimum performance, health, and safety. When we don’t get adequate sleep, we accumulate a sleep debt that can be difficult to “pay back” if it becomes too big. Sleep deprivation has been linked to health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure, negative mood and behavior, decreased productivity, and safety issues in the home, on the job, and on the road.

Myth #3: During sleep, your brain rests.

The body rests during sleep; however, the brain remains active, gets “recharged,” and still controls many body functions including breathing. When we sleep, we typically drift between two sleep states, rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM, in 90-minute cycles. Non-REM sleep has three stages with distinct features, ranging from stage one drowsiness, when one can be easily awakened, to “deep sleep” stage three, when awakenings are more difficult and where the most positive and restorative effects of sleep occur; however, even in the deepest non-REM sleep, our minds can still process information. REM sleep is an active sleep where dreams occur, breathing and heart rate increase and become irregular, muscles relax, and eyes move back and forth under the eyelids.

Myth #4: If you wake up in the middle of the night, it is best to lie in bed, count sheep, or toss and turn until you eventually fall back asleep.

Waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep is a symptom of insomnia. Relaxing imagery or thoughts may help to induce sleep more than counting sheep, which some research suggests may be more distracting than relaxing. Whichever technique is used, most experts agree that if you do not fall back asleep within 15–20 minutes, you should get out of bed, go to another room and engage in a relaxing activity such as listening to music or reading. Return to bed when you feel sleepy. Avoid watching the clock.

Myth #5: The older you get, the fewer hours of sleep you need.

Sleep experts recommend a range of seven to nine hours of sleep for the average adult. While sleep patterns change as we age, the amount of sleep we need generally does not. Older people may wake more frequently through the night and may actually get less night-time sleep, but their sleep need is no less than younger adults. Because they may sleep less during the night, older people tend to sleep more during the day. Naps planned as part of a regular daily routine can be useful in promoting wakefulness after the person awakens. According to sleep experts, teens need at least 8.5–9.25 hours of sleep each night, compared to an average of seven to nine hours each night for most adults. Adult internal biological clocks also keep them awake later in the evening and keep them sleeping later in the morning; however, many schools begin classes early in the morning, when a teenager’s body wants to be asleep. As a result, many teens come to school too sleepy to learn, through no fault of their own.

Myth #6: Health problems such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and depression are unrelated to the amount and quality of a person’s sleep.

Studies have found a relationship between the quantity and quality of one’s sleep and many health problems. For example, insufficient sleep affects growth hormone secretion that is linked to obesity; as the amount of hormone secretion decreases, the chance for weight gain increases. Blood pressure usually falls during the sleep cycle; however, interrupted sleep can adversely affect this normal decline, leading to hypertension and cardiovascular problems. Research has also shown that insufficient sleep impairs the body’s ability to use insulin, which can lead to the onset of diabetes. More and more scientific studies are showing correlations between poor and insufficient sleep and disease.

Myth #7: Snoring is a common problem, especially among men, but it isn’t harmful.

Although snoring may be harmless for most people, it can be a symptom of a life-threatening sleep disorder called sleep apnea, especially if it is accompanied by severe daytime sleepiness. Sleep apnea is characterized by pauses in breathing that prevent air from flowing into or out of a sleeping person’s airways. People with sleep apnea awaken frequently during the night gasping for breath. The breathing pauses reduce blood oxygen levels, can strain the heart and cardiovascular system, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Snoring on a frequent or regular basis has been directly associated with hypertension. Obesity and a large neck can contribute to sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can be treated. Men and women who snore loudly, especially if pauses in the snoring are noted, should consult a physician.

Now let’s examine a few myths about eating disorders.

Myth #1: Only women and girls can get an eating disorder.

A person looking down at a single green apple on a plate.

Figure 2. Eating disorders are dangerous disorders with a high mortality rate; they can affect people of all shapes and sizes.

False. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 10 million men and boys in the United States will suffer from an eating disorder. Eating disorders affect a diverse array of people of various ethnicities, ages, genders, body weight, and socioeconomic groups.

Myth #2: You can tell someone is suffering from an eating disorder by the way they look.

False. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which a person unreasonably limits food intake to prevent weight gain. Individuals who suffer from this disorder may appear extremely thin, but that may be the result of struggling with the disorder for a long time.  The other most common eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, uses bingeing and purging to control weight. These people may appear healthy, despite the internal damage being done to their bodies.

Myth #3: Only external influences, such as peer pressure or distorted physical images, can cause the onset of an eating disorder.

False. While it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of an eating disorder, research conducted by the National Institute of Health suggests that genetic, psychological, behavioral, biological, and social factors can heighten the risk.

Myth #4: Eating disorders are a choice.

False. Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices. People don’t choose to have an eating disorder like they might choose to eat only vegetables or fish. Eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors.

Myth #5: Eating disorders are not really serious.

False. Some research has shown a direct correlation between eating disorders and suicide attempts. If untreated, eating disorders can cause an imbalance in electrolytes that can result in a stroke or heart attack, intestinal distress, brain damage, and multi-organ failure.