You’ve been practicing social isolation for a couple of weeks now, and suddenly you can’t stop devouring every sweet thing in sight.
You used to sleep like a rock but now sleep like a newborn — waking up every few hours, only to find yourself craving even more carbs.
There’s a scientific reason behind that behavior: Poor sleep disrupts our ancient endocannabinoid system, responsible for regulating immune response, appetite, metabolism and more; leaving us craving fatty, starchy and sugary foods.
“When you’re sleep-deprived, you’re not like, ‘Oh, you know what, I want some carrots,’ ” said University of Chicago behavioral neuroscientist Erin Hanlon, who studies the connection between brain systems and behavior.
“You’re craving sweets and salty and starchy things,” Hanlon told CNN in a prior interview. “You want those chips, you want a cookie, you want some candy, you know?”
The yin and yang of cortisol and sleep
Chronic stress day in and day out — which pretty much describes our national environment right now — can create major sleep issues. You sleep less, and what restless sleep you do get is of poor quality, often with frequent awakenings.
That likely means you’re getting little deep sleep, the type of rest the brain and body need for rejuvenation. It’s also during deep sleep that your brain tells the body to stop making stress hormones, particularly cortisol, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Without those chemical signals from the brain, your system keeps churning out that stress hormone, which peaks in the early afternoon and evening — about the time you should be calming your system for bed.
That means you sleep even worse that night, the stress hormones go up the next day, and the cycle continues.
At the same time, that lack of sleep is affecting the endocannabinoid system, which binds to the same receptors as the active ingredient in marijuana.
And what do you get when you smoke weed or gobble an edible? The “munchies.”
“We know that you can infuse endocannabinoids into specific regions of animals’ brains and make them eat,” Hanlon said. “They will eat specific things, more palatable things. They will choose sucrose over saccharin, despite the fact that in theory both taste the same, but the sucrose has more carbs.”
And that is why the stress you are feeling may have turned you into one tired, cranky, carb-devouring creature.
What to do?
The answer, of course, is easier said than done, especially while we are all in the middle of a frightening pandemic: Reduce your stress and get better sleep.
Here are some research-backed options to try:
- Keep a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each day. That helps train your brain to expect sleep.
- Get out of the house for at least 15 to 30 minutes a day. Daylight helps set your circadian rhythm, or body clock.
- Exercise. Even mild exercise, such as walking, improves sleep. But make sure any intense exercise isn’t too close to bedtime.
- Stop any caffeine intake by 3 p.m. This includes coffee, black or green tea, and sodas. Chamomile tea, however, is a good option before bed because the herb can help with relaxation.
- Set up a bedtime ritual with a warm bath or shower, light reading and no screen time. The blue light emitted by TVs, phones, laptops and tablets can also mess with your body clock.
- Be sure the bedroom is dark and cool. Science tells us that we sleep better in cooler temperatures of about 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Do some stretching. A 2019 study of people with insomnia found those who stretched before bed showed improvement in their sleep quality.
- Try progressive muscle relaxation, a stretching technique in which you flex and tense each muscle group in the body, holding the tension for up to 20 seconds. Then release the tension quickly, and imagine breathing through that part of the body. Start with your toes, then feet, then calves — you get the idea.
- Try a meditative relaxation strategy, suggests the National Sleep Foundation. Try deep breathing, yoga or meditation right before bedtime.
- Yoga is especially good, experts say, because it includes them all — breathing, stretching, meditation and strengthening exercises.
Hopefully better sleep will help curb your carb cravings; after all, starchy and sugary foods aren’t good for the immune system — which we all need to boost at this time.
If you try these tips and can’t seem to relax, or your sleep continues to worsen, be sure to reach out to a mental health professional. We can all use a bit of extra support and advice at this time, as we all struggle to manage anxiety in the face of this pandemic.