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July 9, 2024

Ep480: How to Sleep Naturally with Dr. Catherine Darley

Good sleep should be simple: put your head on the pillow and sleep. But it’s not that easy. In this episode, I talk to natural sleep expert, Dr. Catherine Darley, about the skill of getting good sleep. Learn how many ways you can uplevel the quality of your sleep, and how much sleep you actually get.

    • Dr. Catherine Darley, a specialist in natural sleep medicine, discusses her background and expertise in treating sleep and circadian disorders.
    • Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Eating: Dr. Darley explains how inadequate sleep can affect hormones, increase hunger, and lead to poorer food choices (high sugar, high fat).
    • Understanding Personal Sleep Needs: Discussion on how individuals vary in their sleep needs and strategies to determine one’s optimal sleep duration.
    • Tips for Improving Sleep Quality: Includes recommendations such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, managing exposure to light (especially blue light), and using techniques to calm the mind before bed.
    • Common Sleep Disorders: Dr. Darley highlights sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, sleep-related eating disorders, and insomnia.
    • Strategies for Better Sleep: Techniques for handling nighttime awakenings and avoiding behaviors that disrupt sleep, like working on a computer.
    • Importance of Seeking Help for Sleep Disorders: Encouragement for individuals struggling with persistent sleep issues to seek professional evaluation and potential treatment.

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Tricia Nelson: Welcome to the Heal Your Hunger Show where we get to the heart of why you overeat and how to stop. If you struggle with food and weight like I did, welcome home. Welcome everybody to the Heal Your Hunger Show, so happy to have you here. It is a great day to be alive, and I am super psyched for this interview because it’s going to help you sleep better and that’s going to help you eat better.

So before I jump into my awesome guest, I want to just say if you’re here at the Heal Your Hunger Show for the first time, you haven’t heard me say this before, and that is welcome, welcome. I’m so glad you’re here. This is where we talk about things that aren’t the typical conversation around emotional eating. You know, the emotions, the stressors, the things that lead us to eat.

Okay, so you may know a lot about nutrition and diet, but that’s not the end of the story. Why you’re not following through on what you know, that’s what we need to talk about. So one of them is sleep. That’s why I’m excited about my guest today, and I’m really glad you’re here because there are lots of episodes I hope you’ll go back and dig into that can certainly help you on your healing journey of overcoming emotional eating.

And if you’re not sure if you’re an emotional eater, guess what? You can take a quiz on my website, Take a free quiz and find out if you’re an emotional eater. And not only that, find out if you’re an emotional eater or possibly even a food addict and where you are on that spectrum because it’s actually a spectrum. I call it the Emotional Eating Spectrum. Find out where you are on that spectrum by taking the quiz and getting a personalized score because what you want to do next is going to be based on that score. So get that score, go to, take the quiz, and yeah, we can go from there. But it’s a great place to start on your healing journey.

Also, we do a lot in the Secret Sauce group, so go to Facebook. It’s a private but free group on Facebook. It’s called The Secret Sauce to End Emotional Eating. Definitely check that out, and you’ll see lots of different, you know, memes, inspirational messages. I do my social, like my Instagram feed. I post some of those cute things there as well, and I am on Instagram as well. So Tricia Nelson underscore, you can check out my very active Instagram feed at Tricia Nelson underscore.

Okay, that’s it for that. I’m really excited to bring you my guest, Dr. Catherine Darley. She’s a leader in natural sleep medicine. She combines her knowledge of sleep and circadian disorders with her training as a naturopathic physician to bridge these two fields. She’s treated patients for over 20 years, along with training healthcare providers in sleep medicine. Dr. Darley now focuses on teaching people the sleep skills they need to thrive at home, at work, and have a high quality of life. And I love this interview. I learned a lot, and I know you will as well.

Okay, welcome, Catherine. So glad to have you here.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Great, glad to be here.

Tricia Nelson: Yeah, yeah, no, I’m excited about this conversation. And I have to just say for those listening that we are recording this on the 4th of July because we’re passionate about our work and it comes first.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Absolutely.

Tricia Nelson: And yeah, and so we’ll party later, but for now, we’re carving out this time because we know how important it is to get this message out to you. So yay us.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Right.

Tricia Nelson: So, Catherine, I want to talk about sleep, which is your specialty, and it’s so important for my audience because we often don’t get enough sleep. We often don’t prioritize sleep, you know, and I certainly feel like sleep is something that gets used almost as a self-harming thing—lack of sleep, that is. You know, and it’s for somebody who doesn’t always take care of themselves food-wise, you know, sleep is up there as one of the other ways we don’t take care of ourselves. And I do think that the better we feel about ourselves, the better our self-care is all the way around. So I’m just prefacing with that and for my audience because it’s a problem oftentimes. And of course, not getting enough sleep can definitely lead to overeating. It’s so much harder to make sane and sound choices when we’re tired and cranky. So anyway, but let’s jump in, and I’d love to hear what you have to say about sleep and hunger because I know you have some thoughts on that.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yeah, so one of the things that people may not know is that when we’re sleep-deprived, which is about—it’s over a third of people who are typically not getting enough sleep—when we’re sleep-deprived, it actually changes our hormones, so we feel more hungry. And it also changes our food choices. So typically, when a person is chronically sleep-deprived, which means they’re not getting enough, but they are getting some sleep every night, they typically will eat about 300 calories more a day and will choose more high sugar, high fat, processed foods and turn away from the vegetables, the lean proteins, and the healthier choices. And you know, so much of food struggles can be related to or feel like it’s a discipline problem or a motivation problem. And I really would like people to understand that it actually changes your physiology when you’re not getting adequate sleep. So you are going to feel more hungry. It also changes, unfortunately, our blood sugar control and how sensitive our cells are to insulin. So if we’re sleep-deprived, it’s going to lead more towards metabolic dysfunction, which I know is such an issue for so many people as the population ages and people who are struggling with food choices. So that’s also another piece to think about.

Tricia Nelson: Totally, thank you for this like hitting us between the eyes on that one. So, so, so important, right? Sleep can be an aid to healthy eating, like it’s integral to making healthy choices. And it’s true. I mean, that makes so much sense to me. You know, when I’m tired, I want, you know, I’m wanting energy, I want to pick me up. Thank God nowadays it’s like meditation or something super healthy. But it’s the tendency when you’re tired or you’re sick and groggy is to want a quick fix, right? To give you that boost of energy. And we don’t think of salad; we think of chocolate and coffee and, you know, something crunchy and salty and creamy or whatever. So yeah, it’s a real trap, isn’t it?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Absolutely. And you know, I think of improving your sleep in three ways. First of all, you want to make sure you’re getting enough hours of sleep. Then there’s right timing. Are you a night person, a morning person, neither? And then there’s also sleep quality. Do you have an actual sleep disorder that is decreasing your sleep quality? And that first piece of how much sleep do you do best with I think is a great place to start.

Tricia Nelson: Okay, okay. Thank you for that. Our bodies are different, so I’m sure you see people having different needs along those lines.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Absolutely. We fall on a bell curve. The bell curve centers around eight. Most adults need somewhere between seven to nine hours, and then a few people—2%—will maybe need six hours, and 2% will need ten, but most of us are somewhere in that seven to nine range. And the great thing to do is to figure out, okay, where do I fall on that bell curve? I personally am eight and a half hours. I don’t know, Tricia, if you know how much sleep you do best with?

Tricia Nelson: I’ve improved over time. My sleep has definitely improved over time, and I used to be like a six—I used to—oh gosh, I mean, I used to be like a five-hour girl. And then I became a six-hour girl. And now I think I’m a seven-hour girl. And I would love to get eight; I just can’t quite see that happening, but I’m working on it, right? I’m trying to get better about my sleep. I go to bed generally around ten and get up around six. For a long time, I had an Oura Ring, and it never reported that if I was in bed for eight hours, it was not eight hours of sleep. Was my Oura Ring lying, or is that really true? Like it’s like there’s a lot of waking up and it diminishes the hours even though you think you’re sleeping for a certain amount of time.

Dr. Catherine Darley: We definitely have periods of wakefulness in the night. You know, it’s fairly common to have a few. I don’t know how much less your Oura Ring said, but it shouldn’t be more than half an hour or 20 minutes that we’re awake in the night. So a great exercise for people to do, there’s a couple of ways, two or three ways to figure out how much sleep you do best with. The first one is to think back to a time that you were really well-rested and like cognitively snappy, well-coordinated on your fitness routine, emotionally even-keeled, able to make those good choices around food. Maybe you can remember and know how much you slept at that time.

Tricia Nelson: That, I can’t. I have no idea.

Dr. Catherine Darley: You can’t?

Tricia Nelson: No idea.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Okay.

Tricia Nelson: Yeah. All I know is I got rid of my Oura Ring because I didn’t like being so hyperfocused on my sleep. It just almost was counterproductive. So I’m like, I get what I get, but I do feel like I’m doing better, so I feel my best now, honestly.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Good, good. So the other way that you can figure out is to know if you’re waking up to an alarm, you have not gotten enough sleep. You’re truncating your sleep. So you can do ten days of scheduling yourself as much sleep as you can get and see how much sleep you get. I like to do ten hours in bed ten days in a row to really get kind of sleep saturated. And hopefully, if you’re really sleep-deprived, that was not going to be enough, but hopefully ten days, ten hours a night in bed, and just see, you know, after that kind of catching up on your rest, where do you settle out? Are you eight, eight and a half, seven and a half, or whatnot? I think that idea that when we are waking up to an alarm, we haven’t gotten enough sleep is a really useful idea for people.

Tricia Nelson: And so how do people deal with that? I mean, I don’t use an alarm because I’m on my own schedule by the grace of God. And so I just, I wake up pretty naturally around six, six-thirty, something like that. But how do people who have jobs or their kids have to get to school, how do you do it without an alarm?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Well, the other thing that you can do is if you are waking up with an alarm currently, you can go to bed 15 minutes earlier every three or four nights and just keep going to bed slightly earlier progressively earlier until you wake up before your alarm. That would be a good strategy.

Tricia Nelson: I love that. So if your body is waking up without an alarm, that’s an indication that your body’s rested?

Dr. Catherine Darley: It should be much closer, yes. I mean, there’s also the timing issue. Are you sleeping at the right time for your body clock? I’m very strongly a morning person, and I wake up before five on my own, and it doesn’t matter if I go to bed at the right time to get my eight and a half hours or if I stay up late. I will still be getting up by five. So, you know, if people have something like that going on, then they may be waking up on their own but still sleep-deprived.

Tricia Nelson: Now, do people have a rhythm where some people are night owls and they do better that way and sleeping in the morning and vice versa like you?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yeah, absolutely. It’s about a third in each category: being a night owl, more middle of the day, kind of neither, or strongly a morning person. And we think that there’s good reason for that in terms of just human history and small tribes sleeping out on the tundra. You want to have somebody who’s up and can put a log on the fire at all times of day.

Tricia Nelson: Okay, interesting. And so if you’re somebody who is waking up with an alarm and that’s just the way it’s going to be, how do you recommend that they improve their sleep?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Well, the other thing to keep in mind is your circadian system. We have this 24-hour rhythm in our function that helps us do more or less of our function at different times of day. We sleep at night; we’re awake during the day. We digest much better in the day than we do at night because all of those cells in our digestion are programmed to be active during the day and more quiet in a rest state at night. So that circadian system is really cued by light and dark. And I’m sure that you and your listeners have heard about avoiding screens at night, and that’s really just 10% of what we need to be doing to really bolster our circadian system. And if you have a strong, high-amplitude circadian system, it’s going to help you sleep well. So during the day, you want to be getting outside, you want to be getting bright light. Twenty minutes of bright light in the first couple of hours of the day and then every two hours or so, go outside and get bright light. We really need to have that, particularly on our eyes. It signals to the brain that it’s daytime, time to be in a daytime physiological state. Then I know people have heard about not having screens at night. Lots of times when I talk with people one-on-one, they say, “Oh yeah, I heard that, but I didn’t really think it could make that much of a difference.” It actually makes a huge difference. The recommendation is that we actually spend the three hours before bed in low light, 10 lux. A lux is equal to one candle flame, so that’s just ten candle flames. That is a pretty dim room. Many of us are still in a pretty active part of our day three hours before bed. So I think pretty much anybody who has electric light or screens should have some blue blockers.

Tricia Nelson: I like that you have props.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Oh yes, we love to have props. So blue blockers really help signal to our brain that it’s sunset, and when the brain gets that signal, it starts switching us into a physiological state where it’s easy to fall asleep, and it helps us feel drowsy. You should absolutely feel drowsy when you get into bed. So with blue blockers, you want to get these strong reddish-colored lenses. If you have some that are like this, which is just the yellow, that’s not enough for this three hours before bed. You really need them to have this strong reddish-orange color to the lens. I would try it because lots of times people say, “Wow, I had no idea what it would really feel like if I was drowsy at bedtime and what a difference it would make in my sleep.”

Tricia Nelson: Absolutely. I love getting drowsy. I like when the clock turns ten, I just, my eyes start to droop.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yeah, perfect.

Tricia Nelson: Yeah, it’s great. So the blue light blockers, three hours before you go to bed. What about television? Like I get off your computer, but what about watching TV? Because I do like sometimes my guy and I will watch TV before we go to bed. Not in bed, but like in the living room.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yes, so TV’s also going to give that blue light that suppresses our melatonin. My college student, she teases me when I’m like, we’re hanging out watching TV in the evening, and I’m wearing my blue blockers. And I’m like, “Yeah, well, who sleeps better?” And I sleep much better.

Tricia Nelson: Okay.

Dr. Catherine Darley: But apparently, I look a little dorky, but so what.

Tricia Nelson: Well, she would think that no matter what, right?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Okay, so great. And then for those of us, because this does happen to me on occasion, those of us who wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. I go to the bathroom, and then the minute I start thinking, I’m in trouble. Like thinking about the day ahead or some project or some issue, then it’s like I could be up for an hour.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Absolutely, yeah. So the blue blockers will help with that because your melatonin will be higher at night. So that’s one benefit. The other thing is to really take to heart that sleep hours are kind of time out of time. You have your roles, your responsibilities, your to-do list, your thoughts, your planning, mental planning that you take care of during the day, and then you define sleep hours as time that you’re done. You don’t need to think about that stuff. And I know we’re really trained and kind of conditioned in our culture and our society to be like go, go, go all the time, but that’s not how humans have lived most of human history. And you don’t have to live that way. You can say, “Okay, these eight hours or six or seven hours, I’m done. I did my best for those other hours, many more hours of the day, and now I’m done.” And I have a freebie for people, and it has a strategy of how to calm your mind. It’s four steps, and yeah, it works.

Tricia Nelson: We need to share that with people. Can I just ask you, so what you’re saying, and I love what you’re saying, it’s very good. Like don’t get into work thinking. It’s not time for work. It’s just not time for work. It’s not work time. Don’t think about it. Of course, it’s easier said than done. But action-wise, that means that if I wake up and I’m laying in bed, I should not—I already know the answer to this question—I should not get up and get on my computer and do work.

Dr. Catherine Darley: No. No, I like people to do kind of a brain dump, process their day, make their to-do list, whatever kinds of thoughts come up in the middle of the night, take care of those an hour before bed. And then in the night, if your mind starts going, have a phrase, customize it to yourself, something like, “I already thought about that. I will have time tomorrow. Now is my time to rest.” And it’s really about establishing those boundaries in yourself, also with other people, that like you’re not taking care of stuff in the middle of the night. I mean, of course, there may be times that you have an ill family member or you’re on call for work or something, you have to take care of things. But our thoughts are not something we need to take care of in the night.

Tricia Nelson: I love that. Yeah, sometimes I will meditate, and boy, that’s the best thing I can do because that just settles my mind down. But a book, like some kind of fiction or something, just to, you know, think about nothing, so to speak, probably advisable, right? A paper book, not Kindle, not on your computer.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Right, right, right.

Tricia Nelson: Yeah, my preference for sure. Okay, great. Any other tips for people? Because I know you spent a lot of time, as you said before we started the interview, you were telling me that people just, the basics of sleeping, and we have been talking about this, and I think it’s so valuable. So thank you for bringing this information. Any other basics that you find yourself telling people over and over that just need to be said?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Well, I would like to give a shout out for actually sleep disorders. There are 58 sleep disorders, and I know, fortunately, in the last just couple, two or three years, we’re seeing a lot more information on social media about sleep skills. But if you have been doing your best with sleep skills, the things I’ve mentioned, the things you—other things you’ve seen on social media, and you’re just not getting traction, know that there are 58 sleep disorders. They are largely undiagnosed, and you may be kind of, you know, doing the best you can, but you can’t solve a sleep disorder by getting enough time in bed. And so if you’re in that state, I would encourage you to go to your primary care physician or a sleep center and say, “I want an appointment that’s just focused only on sleep.” And we do a full screening, you know, which could be the interview, the physical exam, and then a referral for sleep study if necessary. And really, you know, make sure that you don’t have a sleep disorder going on.

Tricia Nelson: Can you give us some examples of sleep disorders?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yes. So one of the things I’ve been trying to raise awareness on is that women post-menopausally have a much higher rate of obstructive sleep apnea. That’s where a person is breathing, pauses for 10 seconds or more repeatedly in the night. That is very important. As we lose estrogen, as we lose progesterone, those actually help our respiratory drive and the tone of our airway. So we’re more prone to obstructive sleep apnea. Restless legs is another one that is more common in women and increases over the lifespan where people just feel like they have to move their legs, usually in the evening, and can interfere with falling asleep.

Tricia Nelson: Okay, interesting. And the obstructive sleep apnea, is that the one that’s weight—is the obstruction in part or could be in part because of overweight, like too much weight in your neck?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Overweight contributes to it. It’s not the only factor. There’s also, like, I have a small jaw and a little bit recessed and large tonsils. So although I’m overall pretty fit, I’m more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea just because of the shape of my airway. So there’s also that.

Tricia Nelson: Interesting. Okay, so restless legs, obstructive sleep apnea. Can you name a couple other ones that you see a lot?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Well, there’s some very interesting ones that come to mind that are more prevalent in women. One is sleep-related eating disorder where people are eating in the middle of the night in their sleep. That’s related to sleepwalking and is more common in women who have a history of eating disorders. And there’s also, of course, insomnia. We define insomnia if it’s taking more than 30 minutes at the beginning of the night to fall asleep or if you’re awake for prolonged periods in the middle of the night.

Tricia Nelson: Okay, got it. I call it nighttime eating. I’m very familiar with it, and I have a lot of clients that do that or have done that in the past. Are the cases of that that you’ve seen, are they people who don’t know they’re doing it in the moment they’re doing it?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yes.

Tricia Nelson: Like it’s literally sleepwalk eating, like sleepwalking and eating?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yes, exactly. Yeah, and it is rare. It’s quite hazardous because we don’t have our judgment, and so people will eat things actually that aren’t edible, which is scary.

Tricia Nelson: Yeah, yeah. Walking that back a step—pardon the pun—but it would be, I guess, what I call nighttime eating, which is consciously getting up and eating, you know, and that can be driven obviously by emotions, by, you know, deeper psychological like past events, subconscious events in your buried subconscious and that kind of thing. So interesting. Cool. Will you tell us about the free gift that you have because I think this is so helpful for people?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yes. So I have a little PDF sleep plan that guides you through creating a sleep-healthy lifestyle because really bolstering your sleep starts in the morning, like we talked about with the sunlight. It goes through that. It goes through some of the red flags of sleep disorders, and then it also has that how to calm your racing mind four-step strategy. So there’s that, and I also have a webinar where I go through that if people want that additional information.

Tricia Nelson: Beautiful. I love that. We’re going to put that in the show notes so you can grab that. That’s a great gift. I hope everybody takes advantage of that in the show notes on this show on our website.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yeah.

Tricia Nelson: Great, I love it. I’m just taking a look at that. That is really cool. So thank you for that. And I have one last question for you, Catherine. This being the Heal Your Hunger Show, what is your deepest hunger?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Oh, my deepest hunger is to go skiing. That is my deepest hunger.

Tricia Nelson: That’s awesome. I didn’t expect that. That’s awesome. And so that’s your favorite thing to do, is to ski?

Dr. Catherine Darley: It is absolutely my favorite thing.

Tricia Nelson: And where do you ski typically?

Dr. Catherine Darley: I’m on the Pacific coast, so I like to go ski at Whistler.

Tricia Nelson: Okay, I’ve never been there. I used to live in Seattle, actually, many, many moons ago. I love the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Great.

Tricia Nelson: So you’re a ski person. That’s beautiful. I like to ski as well, but I wouldn’t say it’s my deepest hunger. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being here. Thanks for all you do to help people have more restful sleep. Will you share your website with everybody?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yep, so my website is You can see my different courses for improving your sleep, and then I’m on social media, YouTube, Instagram at Skilled Sleeper.

Tricia Nelson: Great. And will you just mention the different—your courses, are they segmented for different audiences? Can you mention that?

Dr. Catherine Darley: Yeah, so people in different life stages and different life circumstances have different sleep challenges. And so my courses, I don’t just have one generic sleep course. I really took the time to customize them for different people. There’s one for families, one for women, there’s one for shift workers, for police, for corporate leaders, and it really allows us within a reasonable amount of time to go deep into the issues that those folks are most likely to face.

Tricia Nelson: I love that. That’s awesome. So you guys, go to I love it. Thank you, Dr. Catherine. We’re so glad that you’re here. I’m really excited to air this so people can get better sleep. So thanks for taking the time on this holiday for coming to share your brilliance. I appreciate you.

Dr. Catherine Darley: Thank you.

Tricia Nelson: Yeah, and thanks everybody for tuning in. We’ll catch you on the next show. If you’re ready to get off the diet roller coaster ride and finally make peace with food and with your body, talk to a Heal Your Hunger mentor about what steps you need to take based on your own history with food and weight. Go to and register for an emotional eating breakthrough session and see how fast you can experience real change. It’s a complimentary evaluation, but there are limited spots available. So go to and register to speak with a mentor today.

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