Dr. Doni discusses why eating too much, too late can make it hard to sleep (it’s all about blood sugar). She offers some simple tips to help you take control.
In the introduction to this series of articles I gave an overview of 12 things that can disrupt our sleep. This week, we’ll focus on blood sugar – and how eating too much of the wrong things can pull us into a vicious cycle of over-eating and blood sugar fluctuations that can have a serious impact on our ability to sleep.
Did you notice that you felt sleepy after your Thanksgiving meal last week? This lull in energy is often attributed to tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in turkey meat that is known to make us feel sleepy. However that sleepiness is also due to a rise in your blood sugar levels as the carbs from your meal make their way into your blood stream.
Then, the day after Thanksgiving, did you notice that you felt hungrier or that you craved sweets? This is because, once your blood sugar goes high (the technical term for this is hyperglycemia) for even just one meal, it will always be followed by a dip in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) a few hours later. This dip will make you to want to eat more and repeat the pattern of eating a large amount of carbohydrates. In fact, some people end up eating more the day after Thanksgiving than they did on Thanksgiving itself.
As you might imagine, once this pattern starts, it is difficult to get it to stop. The more often you consume large, Thanksgiving-sized meals, the more likely your body is to send the signals that lead you to have another large meal. This is because a rise in blood sugar is followed by a rise in insulin, the hormone which causes the sugar to move into your cells to be used to make energy. Then, when your blood sugar is low again, you are likely to crave more sugar and carbs, and in some cases feel tired, irritable, nauseous, and even dizzy if you don’t eat carbs right away.
This pattern not only throws off your energy, mood, and focus during the day, but also has the potential to lead to weight gain and to disrupt your sleep. Any time your insulin function is unable to keep up with the amount of sugar in your blood, the sugar is instead converted into body fat so you gain weight. Finally, weight gain is associated with both sleep apnea and diabetes, which both disrupt sleep, thus creating a vicious cycle of disrupted sleep and weight gain. You can read more about sugar, insulin, and weight gain here.
How does imbalanced blood sugar disrupt your sleep?
Let’s have a look at the process, step-by-step:
Step 1: Eating sugar or carbs first boosts your blood sugar, giving you a burst of energy which could cause you to stay up later than you’d like, especially if you eat them too close to bedtime.
Step 2: Then, as insulin moves the sugar out of your blood and into your cells, you get the inevitable drop in blood sugar, causing you to feel sleepy and maybe even to fall asleep. Good news, right? Wrong!
Step 3: This dip in your blood sugar triggers a stress response in your body, and both cortisol and adrenaline levels will increase, which could wake you up again! See the next piece in this series to learn more about the role cortisol plays in sleep—but just imagine how you might feel if your body experiences a stress response due to low blood sugar while you are trying to sleep.
It is quite likely you’ll wake up, you may feel the need to go to the bathroom and, because your body has finished turning that sugar into energy, it now wants more so you actually feel hungry again causing you to wake for a midnight snack.
So, if you eat a large meal in the evening (or even just a high carbohydrate snack), you may wake up a few hours after you’ve gone to sleep due to a dropping blood sugar level. In fact, it is not just the evening meal that can cause these issues. Your blood sugar balance throughout the day influences your blood sugar levels through the night.
If there are peaks and valleys during the day due to higher-carb or high-sugar foods (a muffin or piece of cake for example) or beverages (a coffee drink, soda, or juice), or even long hours without eating at all (during which time your sugar levels will fall), then you are more likely to wake at night from the continuation of this pattern.
What can you do to keep your blood sugar balanced?
The best way to avoid this whole pattern is to:
- Choose protein every time you eat, along with high-fiber carbs and healthy fats.
- Minimize or avoid sugars (here’s a helpful list for you).
- Eat “half-size” meals so your blood sugar doesn’t go so high.
- Eat every two to four hours (depending on your body’s needs) so your blood sugar doesn’t dip too low.
- Avoid eating sugar or high-carb foods especially within two hours of bedtime.
This is important even if you are not diabetic and your blood tests show a normal blood sugar. It is best to start implementing these tips now rather than later, because if this pattern continues unaddressed, it can lead to further issues down the line.
When insulin is responding in high amounts day after day, and year after year because of high carbohydrate meals and imbalanced blood sugar levels, your cells stop responding to the insulin so efficiently (known as insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome) and/or your insulin level can drop permanently (also known as diabetes).
This means your blood sugar levels stay high and this too, can cause you to feel sleepy after eating carbs because you do not have enough insulin to transport the sugar from your blood into your cells where it can be turned into energy. When it gets to that point it is even more important to follow these tips in order to keep your blood sugar balanced and your sleep patterns healthy.
The bottom line is:
Your body doesn’t regulate your blood sugar levels – you do!
Your body responds to increasing or decreasing blood sugar levels with hormones that attempt to keep the level steady, but if those hormones can’t keep up with your eating patterns, then they are no longer able to manage the fluctuating blood sugar levels. So, it is clear that your decisions about what to eat and when have a huge part to play in regulating your blood sugar levels; if you feed your body in a way that keeps your blood sugar levels balanced, you will prevent diabetes and ensure a good night’s sleep.
To put it simply, the more balanced your blood sugar is during the day, the better you will sleep at night. The better you sleep, the less likely it is that you will gain weight, or develop diabetes, or any of the other health issues associated with a lack of sleep.
If you think this may be what is disrupting your sleep, or if you need more help balancing your blood sugar, be sure to bring this up with your naturopathic doctor, or you can schedule a time for us to meet and discuss strategies to help. Click here to make an appointment.
With this in mind, I designed a special 6-month naturopathic treatment package to address the very issues outlined here in this post (and in this whole series on sleep). This program will help you identify the underlying cause of your sleep issues, construct a natural remedy plan that will reduce or eliminate your symptoms, and design a long-term health regime to help you get restful sleep and restore your quality of life. For more info about Dr. Doni’s Natural Sleep Solutions Package, please click here.
Keep in mind that stress—emotional and/or physical—can amplify this whole imbalanced blood sugar issue because, when cortisol (the stress hormone) is elevated, your blood sugar levels will be even higher. And high blood sugar levels only increase your cortisol. The only way to break this vicious cycle is to get ahead of it by following the tips discussed in this article. We may also need to use nutrients and herbs to decrease your cortisol level, as well as exercise and other activities which we’ll discuss in the next segment of this series. These remedies are also fully covered in my soon-to-be-available ebook—Stress Remedies.
In the meantime, if you’d like to get a head start on balancing your blood sugar levels, I definitely recommend reading my book, The Stress Remedy, which fully describes the ways blood sugar can be disrupted as well as how you can get it back on track. The Stress Remedy Programs I developed can be a great place to start you on a path of eliminating blood sugar issues as a cause of your sleep issues.
Finally, please share your thoughts and experiences with your own sleep troubles in the comments box below.
4th December 2014