The Vicious Cycle: Sleep, Stress and Diet

Alarm clock on night table
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A basic lack of sleep can affect a sufferer’s future food choices and therefore can induce anxiety. Those that do not get enough sleep tend to make poor choices and experience high anxiety as a result- therefore linking stress-diet-sleep together. It seems to be a vicious cycle of poor food choices and anxiety causing poor sleep which then results in future poor food choices and anxiety. Did you catch all that?

Most people list stress as the number one reason for unhealthy food choices and weight gain. Stress can come from a multitude of sources including your job or workplace, lack of sleep, family and home life, money and bills, or just the daily hassles of life. Sometimes stress can be a good thing – pushing us to meet deadlines and be productive. Other times, feeling constantly overwhelmed or anxious can lead to chronic stress that if left untreated, can affect your health. Many times people use food to cope with stress. The reason for this need to eat can be linked to our neuroendocrine system, effects of which date back to our ancestors in the Paleolithic period.

“Fight or Flight” or Feast?
Those ancestors of ours faced real physical stress — such as fighting off a wild animal — that would activate the “fight or flight” response. Whether they decided to fight or flee a stressful encounter, hormones released by the body during that response provided instant energy. Cortisol, another hormone connected to “fight or flight,” causes an increase in appetite, to provide nutrients to help us refuel our bodies after a stressful encounter. Cortisol’s effect on the body lingers after the stress has passed, ultimately driving us to eat more. Unfortunately, studies have shown that, when under stress, our bodies crave sugary or starchy foods, which are typically the foods that can get people in trouble on the scale.

Then and Now
In modern times, our stress seldom comes from physical demands or the danger of facing down a wooly mammoth, but more so from emotional or mental stress. However, our bodies still respond the same, which is often why many people use eating as a way to alleviate stress. Since our response to stress does not typically involve any kind of caloric expenditure, the calories you may consume can be in excess to what you need, leading to unwanted weight gain.

The day-in-and-day-out stress of work can result in “grazing” on sweet, salty, fattening or high calorie foods throughout the day. Even in small quantities (“bite-size” portions and 100-calorie packs) these incidental calories can add up.

Other times, people deal with stress by not eating, which can be just as bad. Not eating throughout the day causes your metabolism to slow down, putting your body into a semi-starvation mode. By the time you do eat, you are ravenous and more inclined to overeat.

More Meals for Less Stress
So how do you combat stress and our body’s primal hunger? By being prepared and practicing good nutrition! Follow these tips below to help keep your stress (and weight) in check!

Start off your day with a balanced breakfast (carbohydrate with a lean protein and/or healthy fat) and don’t skip meals or snacks! Eating every three to four hours is ideal.

Daily Meal Schedule
Snack (optional)

The Importance of Sleep
The quality of sleep has an enormous impact on daily life. Poor or disordered sleep can affect your work, concentration, and ability to interact with others — therefore inducing more unnecessary stress. During sleep, your body restores itself physically and mentally. This allows you to feel fresh and alert in the morning. Some studies suggest that sleep deprivation has direct effects on eating behavior. People who are continually sleep-deprived show increased appetite, particularly for high-carbohydrate, calorie-rich foods — similar to the types of foods we reach for when we are stressed. Sleep-deprived individuals also show increases in ghrelin (a hormone that increases our desire to eat) and decreases in leptin (a hormone that decreases hunger and the desire to eat).

Use these six tips to adjust your eating routine in a way that may help you get a better night’s sleep…and maintain low stress throughout your day.

  1. Eating Too Much or Too Little Can Disrupt Sleep
    A light snack at bedtime can promote sleep, but too much food can cause digestive discomfort that leads to wakefulness.
  2. Keep the Drinks to a Minimum
    While small amounts of alcohol can help you fall asleep, it might have the opposite effect as the night wears on. As the body metabolizes alcohol, sleep may become fragmented. Alcohol can worsen insomnia and also impair rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the time when the body is in its restorative phase. It can also dehydrate you, leaving you tired the next day.
  3. Caffeine Can Disturb Sleep
    Caffeine is a stimulant, which is why so many of us reach for that cup of coffee in the morning to get us going. And it’s true that some individuals can drink caffeinated beverages all day long and still sleep soundly at night. Limiting your caffeine intake should be one of the first steps you try to help improve your sleep. Be aware that coffee is not the only source of caffeine. Many sodas and teas, chocolate, and some medications, especially those for headaches, also contain caffeine. Check labels to help eliminate such sources of stimulation.
  4. Forget the Fat
    If you consume a high-fat meal in the evening or eat foods that you have found cause you indigestion and heartburn, your sleep can be disturbed and restless.
  5. Do Not Eat Late at Night
    People who suffer from heartburn or acid reflux should avoid late, heavy meals that delay the emptying of the stomach. Lying down with a full stomach puts you at a gravitational disadvantage, encouraging acids and gastric juices to flow up into the esophagus, causing uncomfortable heartburn that will make sleep more challenging.
  6. Drinking Fluids Too Close to Bedtime Can Cause Problems
    Drink the majority of your fluids for the day by the end of dinner. A full bladder may be cutting into your sleep time. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Water is essential to healthy bodily functions. Shoot for eight glasses, or two quarts, per day. But be sure to drink the majority of your fluids before dinnertime so you won’t be making numerous trips to the bathroom during your sleeping hours.

The Bottom Line
Eating balanced small meals and snacks throughout the day has several benefits to reducing stress, anxiety, and promote better sleep. First, it helps maintain blood sugar levels which keeps energy levels stabilized over the course of the day. Eating frequently also keeps your metabolism running. It keeps you hungry/full instead of starving/stuffed, which decreases the chance for overeating and inducing anxiety because of those poor food choices. If you come to work prepared with healthy meals and snacks, it decreases the urge for stress-snacking during the day. Finally, it allows more opportunities to include fruits, vegetables, and fiber into your day, which we all need to make a point to do!

Amber Massey on Twitter
Amber Massey
Amber Massey, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian in Dallas, Texas. Read her blog and recipes at and follow her on Twitter.