Do you blame your sleepless nights on anxiety or stress? It’s not a bad guess as one or the other is usually the culprit for disrupting your sleep – but what if it could be something else?
How Blood Sugar Affects Sleep
Sleep and physical health are closely connected. Every night – regardless of whether you sleep – your blood sugar levels increase as a part of the natural human circadian rhythm cycle. With blood sugar levels increasing during sleep, blood sugar fluctuations that occur overnight and during sleep are normal.
Over the past few decades, the average numbers of hours slept each night has decreased. This may in turn have contributed to the increase in obesity and diabetes. Obesity and diabetes are affected by blood sugar levels, while one’s blood sugar also impacts obesity and diabetes. As a result, blood sugar could be one of the factors involved in weight loss and sleep. Sleep plays an important role in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
Usually, when blood sugars drop low, the body releasees cortisol which is our body’s main stress hormone. Cortisol is responsible for raising blood sugar levels when they drop too low and signals for glucose to be broken down from the muscles or the liver and released into the bloodstream, to rebalance blood sugar levels. However, if your blood sugar levels are imbalanced, your body could be repeating this process much more regularly than it should.
For example, if you have had a high carbohydrate meal at night, maybe alongside some alcohol, your blood sugars will increase rapidly. This spike in sugars will be followed by a sharp decline a few hours later when you are likely to be fast asleep. Due to this crash in blood sugars, the body releases cortisol, along with adrenaline, into the bloodstream. Naturally, this causes us to wake up in the early hours of the morning (3 or 4am), feeling anxious, alert, and possibly even nauseous upon wakening.
Symptoms of Blood Sugar Imbalance
- Cravings for sweets between meals and at the end of a meal
- Irritability or feeling light-headed if meals are missed
- Not feeling hungry at breakfast
- Dependency on coffee and sugar for energy
- Waking in the middle of the night (around 3 or 4am) / feeling alert or anxious
- Difficulty losing weight
- Increased appetite and thirst
- Feeling agitated and nervous
- Poor memory and forgetfulness
Eating Right to Balance Blood Sugar
If you resonate with any of the symptoms above, we suggest a starting point of looking at your diet and perhaps making some adjustments. Nutritionist Flora Crichton who specialises in sleep and hormonal imbalances, advises all her patients to start each day with a balanced breakfast of predominantly protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Ultimately, sufficient protein at each meal will reduce cravings and unnecessary hunger. We need around 1g of protein for kg of our body weight.
Balancing blood sugar through your diet can be challenging, due to intense craving and the addictive nature of certain foods. Here are some recommendations to begin your journey with:
Eat a low carbohydrate breakfast
Make sure to include high-quality fats and proteins and eat within one hour of waking up, as it signals the body to start burning energy. When you wake up in the morning, you have gone a long time without eating. Your cortisol hormone is at its highest.
Eat a high protein snack
If you are feeling lightheaded or irritable between meals, eat a high protein snack. For example, eggs, nuts, seeds, lean meat, a healthy protein bar, or a low fruit green smoothie with a scoop of your favourite protein powder – Dreem Founder Hayley loves Form protein powders. You will find you can go longer between meals when your blood sugar levels start to balance out.
Focus on a lower carbohydrate diet
A high carbohydrate diet is at the root of blood sugar imbalances, which can lead to you feeling sleepy or craving sugar after you eat. Your plate should be about 25% protein, 25% carbohydrates, 10% fat and 40% vegetables. Of course, we mustn’t discount carbohydrates, they are an important part of our diets and should not be excluded. Some of our favourite options are: Wholemeal/rye bread, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, sweet potatoes, wholewheat pasta. Whole grains contain more vitamins, minerals, and fibre, so they usually cause smaller spikes in our blood sugar.
Many symptoms of blood sugar imbalance, such as sleep issues, irritability, and energy crashes, start to diminish on a lower carbohydrate diet. Unidentified food intolerances can also create sugar cravings or fatigue after meals, so it’s important to find out if this is an issue for you by speaking with a nutritionist.
Fuel body repair with protein
Protein provides the raw material needed to repair your daily tissue damage, not just your muscles after a workout. Your body replaces blood cells every 100 days or so – that’s a lot of cell turnover, and almost every system in your body is constantly renewing itself. You need to fuel that repair and renewal process by eating protein throughout the day. As a bonus, eating protein also helps you burn more calories because it takes more energy to metabolise protein than carbohydrates, sugar, or fat. We call that the thermogenic effect of food. This is a reference to the increase in metabolic rate, the rate at which your body burns calories, that occurs after ingestion of food. When you eat food, your body must expend some energy to digest, absorb, and store the nutrients in the food you’ve eaten.
Try to avoid sugary or starchy foods before bed
This is one of the worst things someone with imbalanced blood sugars can do. Your blood sugar will dip during the night when you are asleep and it is likely that adrenaline and cortisol will be released during the night, resulting in restless sleep or a 3am wake up in the middle of the night, and feeling wide awake or anxious.
Timing is also important
Experts suggest eating at least two hours – preferably more – before your bedtime to avoid acid reflux.