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Sugar and Sleep: How Your Sweet Tooth Might Be Ruining Your Sleep

Mollie Eastman Nov 07, 2023

Does sugar affect your sleep?

We're all guilty of overindulging in a sweet treat or two now and again. Turning down a sugary snack such as leftover birthday cake or those "healthy" chocolates tucked away in your desk can be difficult, especially if you strongly crave sweets.

But, from seeing our waistline begin to bulge to watching our complexion suffer, various issues arise when we start overeating sugar too often. According to the CDC [1], the excessive consumption of added sugars in our diet is a growing concern.

Over time, it can lead to various health problems, including weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. To live longer and healthier, it is important to adopt a more nutritious diet by reducing the intake of added sugars and incorporating regular physical activity.

What the CDC does not note, however, is that sugar can also impact sleep! An impressive body of evidence now links sugar consumption to a poor night’s sleep. That late-night cookie’s starting to look a lot less appetizing, right?

I will explore this complex relationship and detail some fascinating research on the topic to explain why it exists.

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Does Sugar Keep You Awake?

In some ways, the notion that reducing your sugar intake might help you sleep is no surprise. Take a 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine [2], where researchers concluded: “High sugar intake is associated with lighter, less restorative sleep with more arousals.” Although the sample size (26 people took part) wasn’t huge, it remains an intriguing exposé.

That’s doubly true when you realize that participants eating high quantities of sugar in the study also exhibited an uptick in wakeups: which, as the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School notes that an “increased frequency of awakenings may prevent transitions to the deeper stages of sleep” [3].

There’s further support for the link between poor sleep and sugar in a much larger study of 3,129 female Japanese workers [4]. In it, researchers found that individuals who consumed more confectionery (not to mention “energy drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages”) slept worse than those with healthier eating habits.

Read More: Unlock the Benefits of Deep Sleep

Why Sugar Can Affect Your Sleep

The next question to ask is, “why?” What’s behind the apparent link between sugar and poor sleep? The exact biological mechanisms at play are pretty layered and still require more research.

For instance, diets high in carbohydrates (sugar’s the simplest type of carb available) are known to raise levels of an essential amino acid called tryptophan in our brains [5]. For various reasons explained in this study entitled, “Recent research on the behavioral effects of tryptophan and carbohydrate”[6], that should make you sleepier.

The answer to this riddle might lie in an uptick in inflammation. As Harvard Medical School notes [7], “consuming too much sugar can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation,” which would be bad news for your sleep. In another article from Harvard Medical School, the author explains how “sleep deprivation is associated with markers of inflammation” [8].

Beyond these points, chronobiology opens up a whole host of potential reasons why consuming food in general at the wrong times, particularly a quick energy source like sugar, might throw off your body clocks and impact your sleep.

Sugar and Sleep Study: The Relationship Between Added Sugar Intake and Sleep Quality Among University Students

The Caveat

Like anything, though, nothing’s straightforward! Sugar can make you tired, but it’s worth pointing out that not all sugars are made equal. Eat the right kind at the correct times, and some studies indicate that your sleep may actually improve. Take fruit, for example, which tends to be high in a natural sugar called fructose.

Far from hindering sleep quality, a study from the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan [9]) notes that: “Women who were able to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption by three or more servings over a three-month period were more than twice as likely to experience an improvement in [their] insomnia symptoms.” Additionally, you have to be careful when considering evidence that sugary drinks impact your sleep. The sugar may be the culprit.

The Solution

You can occasionally enjoy a decent night’s sleep while indulging your sweet tooth (although the best option is always abstinence). For example, why not start with monk fruit? Native to China, Food Insights Organization [10] describes the extract of this melon-like fruit as “150-200 times sweeter than sugar” and displays “no effect on blood glucose.”

The natural sweetener is also zero-calorie and packed with medicinal properties. Stevia’s another option. Another natural sweetener that’s non-nutritive and has no calories, replacing sugar with stevia would limit your carb intake and, in theory, might not mess with your sleep in the same way that traditional sugar does.

If sugar keeps you awake at night, there are other suggestions to help limit the intake and improve your sleep.

Drink More Water

For some, eliminating sugar from their diet can be challenging. Nevertheless, it may be as easy as drinking more water. Increasing your water intake can aid in eliminating excess glucose in your body. Water has numerous benefits, including improved blood circulation, appetite suppression, and reduced sugar cravings. Consuming at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water is recommended daily. However, limiting nighttime consumption to one or two glasses is advisable to prevent frequent urination during the night.

Drink Less Sugary Drinks

If possible, try not only to limit the number of soft drinks throughout the day but try before bedtime because they include a lot of sugar. Yet, it's important to mention that fruit juices and sports drinks can also have high amounts of added sugars. Instead, swap these drinks with decaffeinated herbal teas or a glass of milk. These beverages have been known to help people relax and wind down for a better night's sleep.

Include Healthy Foods to Your Diet

Incorporating sleep-inducing foods into your diet is a helpful strategy to reduce your sugar intake. Foods rich in protein can influence sleep while having minimal impact on blood sugar levels. Lean white meats such as turkey and chicken contain tryptophan, a protein that aids in producing melatonin, the sleep hormone.

In addition, carbohydrates like sweet potatoes digest slowly and keep you feeling full for longer. These foods also enhance the levels of tryptophan and serotonin, two brain chemicals that play a role in sleep.

Limit Nighttime Snacking

While sugary treats may be enjoyable, they often lack nutritional value and can disrupt sleep. To prevent sleep interruptions, avoid unhealthy sugary foods late at night. Although eating late at night is not recommended, we recommend replacing processed snacks with healthier options such as fresh fruits or nuts for a better bedtime snack.

Final Thoughts

If all else fails and you’re fiending for a nighttime sugary snack, there is a product created in part by my friend, Dr. Michael Breus, that aims to be a sleep-friendly ice cream called, Nightfood.

While these can all be potential alternatives to have the occasional indulgence, we do advocate overall to aim to balance your blood sugar both night and day to improve your sleep. That means exploring and experimenting with this area from a bio-individual perspective (if finances allow it, consider investing in a continuous glucose monitor), improving your sleep from the inside out!

Citations / Resources

[1] CDC. (2021, January 27). Get the Facts: Added Sugars. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. View Resource

[2] St-Onge, M.-P., Roberts, A., Shechter, A., & Choudhury, A. R. (2016). Fiber and Saturated Fat Are Associated with Sleep Arousals and Slow Wave Sleep. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 12(01), 19–24. View Study

[3] Science of Sleep: How is Sleep Regulated? (2021, October 1). View Resource

[4] Katagiri, R., Asakura, K., Kobayashi, S., Suga, H., & Sasaki, S. (2014). Low intake of vegetables, high intake of confectionary, and unhealthy eating habits are associated with poor sleep quality among middle-aged female Japanese workers. Journal of Occupational Health, 56(5), 359–368. View Study

[5] Spring, B. (1984). Recent Research on the Behavioral Effects of Tryptophan and Carbohydrate. Nutrition and Health, 3(1-2), 55–67. View Resource

[6] Ibid

[7] Harvard Health Publishing. (2022, January 6). The sweet danger of sugar. Harvard Health; Harvard Health. View Resource

[8] How sleep deprivation can cause inflammation. (2022, January 11). Harvard Health. View Resource

[9] Study Finds Consuming More Fruits and Vegetables Can Improve Sleep | News | University of Michigan School of Public Health | Nutrition | Sleep | Fruits and Vegetables | Research | Faculty |. (2021, April 12). View Resource

[10] Food Insight. (2018, December 18). Everything You Need to Know about Monk Fruit Sweeteners — IFIC Foundation. IFIC Foundation. View Resource