I was excited to see that my recent survey about sleep/wake habits here on the blog supported my hypothesis: that those with restrictive patterns tend to rise earlier, and those with more binge/purge patterns rise later. Of course, in order to really look at the data, I'd need to compare the early bird and night owl percentages of each category with those of a non-ED sample.
Although many things affect circadian rhythm--most of which are under genetic control--one of the key hormones is cortisol. Released from the adrenal cortex, cortisol levels generally peak upon waking and reach a low point shortly after you go to sleep. What's more, cortisol is released during times of stress or anxiety, increasing both blood pressure and blood sugar.
A PubMed search of eating disorders and circadian rhythm produced mainly results on night eating syndrome. However, one study found a negative correlation between awakening cortisol response and "high anxiety, disinhibition and hunger scores, as well as poor body esteem and a high weight preoccupation" in women, but not men. That means that women with a low awakening cortisol response have high levels of anxiety, poor body esteem, etc. Of course, we don't know if this is cause or effect- just that it exists.
In otherwise healthy women who did not have regular menstrual periods, cortisol levels were increased compared to normal women, indicating stress on the body (the authors hypothesized that the reason for this amenorrhea was insufficient fat intake, despite sufficient calories and without excessive physical activity).
Patients with bulimic symptoms had significantly higher rates of cortisol suppression than controls and than restrictive anorectic patients. Percent cortisol suppression showed a strong and significant correlation with the patient's score on the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale. A hypersensitive cortisol response todexamethasone, which might reflect hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunctions might be specifically associated with impulsive subtypes of eating disorders.
Clearly, cortisol is just one player on a much larger field. Nor is it clear whether abnormalities in cortisol levels are cause or effect, and perhaps it's a little bit of either. Certainly the eating disorder exaggerates any underlying abnormalities. Whether the ED behaviors themselves cause the specific differences observed in cortisol levels in anorexia and bulimia, or whether these differences are part of the underlying risk factors for these illnesses also remains unclear.