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Brain Food Column Month Five: Sleep on it

Every month, Amerley Ollennu challenges you and herself to road-test research and healthy strategies to help change the way we think about food once and for all

by Psychologies

Brain Food column

I had full body check-up recently: bones scanned, organs examined, blood taken. The results showed that, thanks to my nutritionist Yvonne McMeel’s advice on a balanced way of eating, my blood sugar and cholesterol levels were where they should be, but my stress hormones (such as cortisol) were way above ‘normal’.

According to psychologist Elaine Slater ‘the accumulation of too much emotional or mental pressure results in stress that can trigger physiological responses, like cortisol, adrenalin and androgen hormones flooding the body affecting metabolism and sleep and often leading to emotional eating’.

The challenge

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: stressed people don’t often sleep well, even before the lack of sleep starts to raise cortisol further. ‘Sleep gives the body time to rest and lower the level of stress hormones present, so little or poor sleep can have detrimental effects when it comes to controlling the urge to emotionally eat,’ says Slater. Have you ever eaten more than you should when tired, or opted for the wrong types of food? I have.

McMeel adds: ‘Sleep deprivation can cause fat cells to secrete lower amounts of leptin, which our body responds to by inducing hunger.’ 

So I decided to try and improve my quality of sleep to enable my body to recover from daily stressors, in the hope that this would also help reduce stress-induced eating.

The experience

Some days I found that using sleep aids like meditative apps, lavender-infused baths, and a darkened room really helped – other days, they didn’t. I felt the need to put stress-busting strategies in place that made me feel more organised and better able to cope with life. Daily gym visits helped me take time out for myself, as did seeing friends at weekends rather than after work. I started writing to-do lists. Just as my trainer Dan Roberts had taught me to make small process goals when it came to exercise, I began to apply this to all aspects of my life. Some were work-related lists, others recognised particular stress triggers and were solutions to counteract them. For example, rather than feeling sad that my clothes didn’t fit, I vowed to carve out time to buy some new outfits. Rather than beat myself up about being single, I decided to go out every Friday night in a bid to meet new people. I hoped being proactive about what was stressing me out would help relieve it in some way.

The result

I’ve found that embracing both action (by doing something about what’s making me stressed or unhappy), and inaction (in the form of relaxed evenings in), has helped me to feel less on edge and has also had positive effects on my sleep patterns. I realised that, like many people, I’d been operating in emergency mode for so long that I had no idea what it felt like to truly have a sense of balance. It’s been a challenge to slow down and put my health first. But I’ve found sleeping better makes it far easier to have more control over my life and my food choices.

For more on the importance of sleep, read a previous Psychologies Book Club choice, Richard Wiseman’s Night School: Wake Up To The Power Of Sleep (Macmillan, £20)

More inspiration:

Read 5 ways to feel more balanced, every day by Eminé Ali Rushton on LifeLabs