Chronic sleep loss can be an underlying factor in an eating disorder. Parents who help their kids get sleep will help them recover from an eating disorder

Sleep deprivation and eating disorders

If you are parenting a teenager or young adult, you are probably familiar with the problem of chronic sleep deprivation among teenagers. It is well established that adolescent sleep patterns impact the neurological development and behavior of our teenagers.

A constant lack of quality sleep impacts our children physically in terms of increased death by car crashes due to sleepy driving, and emotionally in terms of increased levels of depression, anxiety, suicidality and eating disorders, all of which can be significantly triggered by a lack of sleep.

Brain Science: Many mental disorders first appear during adolescence, possibly because of the massive level of “pruning” the brain is undergoing as it develops into an adult brain. Mental disorders including schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders all tend to emerge during adolescence. It is thought that the appearance of these disorders may align with the adolescent brain’s maturation of the prefrontal cortex, which is the area responsible for planning, prioritizing and controlling impulses.

Science has shown that, rather than just being lazy, teenagers are actually driven by melatonin levels to stay up later in the night and awake later in the morning than either children or adults. Despite this biologically-driven process to fall asleep later, teenage brains still require 9-10 hours of sleep per night.

It goes without saying that most of our teens don’t get even close to 9-10 hours of sleep. Even teens who are able to fall asleep at midnight are likely only getting 6-7 hours of sleep to accommodate early school start times. A lack of sleep has been conclusively proven to increase impulsivity and increase depression, both of which are known factors in the development of eating disorders.

“Sleep loss problems are linked with brain areas that control emotional processes and risk-taking,” says Wendy Troxel, a clinical psychologist and senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND. “Sleep problems and behavioral and mental health problems are linked.”

A lack of quality sleep has a profound impact on our kids’ health, cognition, and behavior. But what can we do about it?

1. Make a family plan

It is important to make sleep a priority for everyone in the family. While this article discusses the importance of sleep in the adolescent brain, particularly one that is struggling with an eating disorder, sleep is vital to all human beings.

Discuss the importance of sleep, and agree that as a family, every member needs to improve his or her sleep hygiene. This foundational agreement is the only way you will be able to successfully implement the following recommendations.

2. Turn off electronics

According to the National Sleep Foundation, “ninety percent of people in the U.S. admit to using a technological device during the hour before turning in, and children often use electronic media to help them relax at night,”

The problem with this trend is that using electronic devices is physiologically and psychologically stimulating and can adversely affect sleep. Yes, all of us believe that we do not fall into the category of people who find electronics disruptive, and all of us believe that our devices help us fall asleep, but the science shows that simply isn’t true.

Sleep Science: Using TVs, tablets, smartphones, laptops, or other electronic devices before bed delays your body’s internal clock (a.k.a., your circadian rhythm), suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. This is largely due to the short-wavelength, artificial blue light that’s emitted by these devices.

The more electronic devices that a person uses in the evening, the harder it is to fall asleep or stay asleep. Besides increasing your alertness at a time when you should be getting sleepy, which in turn delays your bedtime, using these devices before turning in delays the onset of REM sleep, reduces the total amount of REM sleep, and compromises alertness the next morning. Over time, these effects can add up to a significant, chronic deficiency in sleep. (National Sleep Foundation)

kitchen safe

As a family, determine a time at which all electronics must be powered down. All the way. Not left sitting next to you so that you can see texts coming in. Create a charging station in the house in which all electronics are stored for the night. You may need to make it physically difficult or impossible for anyone to access the electronics at night (after all, we’re talking about teenagers who are notorious for “finding a way”).

One solution is to purchase a time-based safe. Remember that all members of the family must participate in the activity of powering down – it can’t be something that only the kids have to follow.

Shown above is the Kitchen Safe. Please note that this product is also marketed as a way to keep people “safe” from junk food, and we do not endorse that usage pattern at all.

3. Sleep hygiene

Bedtime rituals can be very helpful in signaling the brain to “power down” and prepare for sleep. Each person will have their own ritual, but the important thing is to talk about them as a family. For example, one person may enjoy a shower or a bath. Another may enjoy a cup of something warm and soothing.

Have books and physical reading materials available for everyone. Book-based entertainment is enjoyable but non-stimulating and therefore not disruptive to sleep. Get everyone proper sleeping clothing and invest in nice sheets and pillows so that everyone feels happy in their beds.

Begin turning off lights as the night wears on. Lights signal our brains to stay awake, so gradually turn off all the lights you can to help signal sleep. The best sleep hygiene involves going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. Based on age and temperament, establish ideal bedtimes for each family member.

4. Time management

At this point, you may be wondering if this type of sleep program is even possible. In fact, you may think it’s insane. Perhaps your child tells you they need to remain available for texts and do homework until midnight. If this is the case, then look at your child’s schedule. There are likely two things going on: 1) your child has activities that keep him or her away from home and unable to start homework until late at night, and 2) your child is multi-tasking while doing homework.

If you are able to reduce your child’s extracurricular load so that he or she is able to complete homework well before 9 p.m., then please, consider doing that. Of course, your child enjoys his or her activities, but mental health, and therefore recovery from an eating disorder, is highly dependent upon sleep. If your child is not able to complete all activities and homework by 9 p.m. then he or she is overworking. Our teenagers’ brains cannot handle the strain and may develop serious disorders as a result of chronic overwork.

In addition to reducing activities, you also need to teach your child the skills of monotasking. While multi-tasking is ubiquitous, it’s actually less efficient and leads to longer work times. Monotasking means that when your child is writing a paper, he or she is not checking text messages or playing a game or being interrupted by his or her little sister with a question. Work with your teen to create monotasking spaces in which to complete homework.

Here is a great TED Talk about monotasking.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the editor of and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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  1. Pingback: What to worry about instead of your kids’ body weight and the food they eat

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