Almost any medical condition you can run into demands diet changes as part of the treatment. The most delicious foods are often rich in sugar, and it takes discipline to resist that hedonistic aspect of food day-to-day. However, if we go wild on treats, snacks or carbonated and caffeinated drinks, it can cause health issues that slip under the radar and create massive problems for us. Irregular blood sugar levels are unfortunately quite common, and no matter which side you’re on (high blood sugar or low blood sugar), you can run into health problems that hinder your ability to function optimally and enjoy various activities.
In order to enjoy healthy sleep, it is crucial to regulate your blood sugar levels through awareness, discipline, and a steady diet. On top of that, having pre-existing sleep problems or bad sleeping habits can directly lead to blood sugar levels. We decided to write this article to spread awareness about the risks of high and low blood sugar levels in the context of sleep. You will find information on the consequences of having a bad diet, as well as certain other relevant factors that can ruin your ability to sleep properly and cause other, seemingly unrelated medical conditions. Without further ado, let’s get into it:
How Blood Sugar and Sleep Normally Work?
Our circadian rhythm controls a large portion of our body. This rhythm depends on a master biological clock in our brain which uses light receptors to figure out when it’s day or night and regulate our bodily processes accordingly. Depending on the time of day, we can spot changes in our hormone secretion and production, appetite, libido, energy levels, etc. While it’s easy enough to notice trends during the day while we’re awake, people without years of study (and who haven’t read our previous articles) don’t know what goes on during the night, when we’re sleeping.
Depending on which sleep stage we’re in, certain parts of our brain are hard at work – sleep is when we experience muscle repair, tissue replacement, memory consolidation, and many other restorative processes. The primary hormone responsible for regulating our sleep structure and putting us to sleep in the first place is melatonin – and melatonin production depends quite heavily on our circadian rhythm. At around 3 a.m., melatonin levels begin to drop as another hormone takes the stage – cortisol, the stress hormone responsible for waking you up and energizing you for the following day. Cortisol, when combined with adrenaline and certain other growth hormones, heats your body and increases blood sugar levels – this process is sometimes referred to as the “dawn phenomenon,” thanks to the fact that it occurs anywhere between 3 a.m. and 8 a.m.
In a healthy body that regularly gets around 7-8 hours of mostly uninterrupted rest, this increase in blood sugar is quickly managed and counteracted by the insulin hormone. This hormone causes your liver, fat, and muscles to absorb the excess glucose and thus reduce the level of blood sugar to a normal state. People with diabetes aren’t able to do this because their insulin production and functionality are impaired, which causes all that sugar to stick around and damage your body in many subtle ways.
We will go into detail on what happens in people with high and low blood sugar, since the outcome of these two conditions isn’t the same, in some ways. While both of them can disrupt sleep and contribute to various other conditions, it’s crucial to examine them separately to paint a full picture.
How High Blood Sugar Affects Your Sleep
The main cause of high blood sugar levels (otherwise known as hyperglycemia) is impaired insulin functionality, or your body’s inability to respond properly to insulin. It is especially true for people who have diabetes. The result of a consistently higher level of blood sugar is devastating for your ability to sleep. We mentioned that cortisol is called the “stress” hormone, and this is where that comes into play. A heightened level of blood sugar creates stress, and stress (along with anxiety) is possibly the most common contributing factor towards insomnia, as it puts you in an alert and tense state, making it harder for your body to properly relax and fall asleep.
Insomnia is a guaranteed way to have your circadian rhythm disrupted, as the increased sleep onset latency can leave you tossing and turning in bed for hours. Because the circadian rhythm is responsible for managing melatonin and cortisol production, getting poor sleep heavily impacts your blood sugar regulation. That’s not even considering all the other consequences of sleep deprivation and subsequent fatigue. According to research, people who sleep less than 7 hours per night on average have a doubled chance of encountering diabetes – or they already have it.
Additionally, people with high sugar have to urinate more often, since a high level of sugar in their blood activates their kidneys. While this affects everyone, it plays a special part in the bedwetting habit of young children – which is why sugary drinks like carbonated soda are especially troublesome as part of their regular diet. If the person is capable of waking up to go to the bathroom, high blood sugar still causes them to have fragmented sleep as deep sleep and REM sleep require time to transition into, and that’s not what you get when you keep waking up.
If you’re dealing with high blood sugar, consult your doctor. Some early symptoms of hyperglycemia include fatigue, blurred vision, frequent urination, increased thirst, and headaches. If you notice these early symptoms, the resulting treatment is much more likely to work, and it will work faster. If left untreated, however, the symptoms become more severe and difficult to work around. These symptoms may include nausea (with vomiting), confusion, abdominal pain, weakness, or even coma.
How Low Blood Sugar Affects Your Sleep
Much like with high blood sugar, low blood sugar (or hypoglycemia) can negatively affect your sleep. Most people are afraid of high blood sugar levels, but going too low is just as bad since your body needs some sugar to operate properly. When your body detects a low level of sugar in your blood, it starts to produce cortisol, adrenaline and growth hormones. This added stress can often wake you up in the middle of the night, which ruins your sleep architecture and causes further problems. Worst of all, it makes you crave food, especially really sugary stuff like junk food. Coffee is another offender in this context since it can also contribute to a whole host of sleep disorders and keep you from getting enough rest. Your body essentially overcompensates for low blood sugar by making you eat the least healthy stuff in your house. The more you indulge in those foods, the more you risk other health conditions, such as obesity or even diabetes.
If you eat unhealthy food at a time of night when you should be asleep, it damages your sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythm even further, which can cause excessive daily fatigue and other sleeping disorders, such as chronic sleep deprivation. Additionally, your body may not be prepared to digest that food properly, putting you at risk of lowered insulin sensitivity, which loops the problem back towards high blood sugar.
It’s important to recognize the symptoms of low blood sugar early and make an appointment with your primary care physician. Fatigue is a common symptom, especially if you’re also worried about potential sleep disorders, as every sleep disorder causes fatigue in some way. If your mouth is tingling around the edges of the lips or you’re hungry very often, that is a huge tell-tale sign that you have low blood sugar. Sweating, shakiness and pale skin can also be quickly identified, but you also have problems like an irregular heart rhythm, irritability or even a tendency to cry out during sleep. If left untreated, the symptoms of hypoglycemia get worse, and several new and dangerous symptoms crop up. These include seizures, blurred vision, confusion (and the inability to do routine tasks at times), or loss of consciousness.
Tips on How to Manage Your Blood Sugar Levels
With some diligence, it’s not obscenely hard to look after your blood sugar levels. Like any significant change you want to make in your life, this will take effort and planning. But if your health is at risk, any effort is worth it. Managing your blood sugar levels will improve your sleep and overall health immensely if you’ve been struggling with high or low blood sugar until now. If bad habits create a negative cycle of poor sleep and hormonal disbalance, good habits lead to more good things. Here’s a list of tips we can offer for improving your lifestyle:
- Establish a consistent sleeping schedule, and stick to it. It is harder to do for shift workers, obviously, but everyone else shouldn’t run into too much trouble. You need at least seven hours of sleep each night in order to benefit from the restorative properties of all the individual sleep stages. The fewer interruptions you get, the better. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more sleep is always better. Sleeping too much carries its own risks.
- Develop a habit of exercising as often as possible. It will help your blood sugar levels and also lead to multiple other health benefits, such as increased energy every day, a fit and toned figure and a stronger immune system. Exercise also pairs incredibly well with the next point on this list.
- Maintain a healthy and efficient diet. A lot of people have a very unhealthy habit of eating just one or two big meals each day. It’s far more beneficial to have a few more meals each day, but make them all smaller. This approach helps your body metabolize all that food properly, leaving you more energized and satisfied around the clock. As for which food you should eat, consult your primary care physician to find out what kind of meal plan fits your body the best. Drink a lot of water, and avoid indulging in lots of sweets, caffeine, alcohol or carbonated drinks. You don’t have to avoid them entirely, but if you’re dealing with blood sugar problems, you also want to make it a very rare treat. Counting calories is generally a good idea for weight management, whether you’re trying to drop some pounds or eat exercise-friendly food that helps you develop muscle.
- Make it a part of your daily routine to monitor and track your blood glucose levels. Once again, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor about this. They can determine what you should eat, how often and they can also teach you how to keep track of your blood sugar (it’s not really hard). Regular check-ups will most likely be mandatory if you undergo proper hyperglycemia (or hypoglycemia) treatment, so make use of their knowledge.
- Avoid eating heavy meals right before bed, or eating large quantities of food of any kind before trying to sleep. The resulting indigestion is not going to help you sleep in any way.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic