Want To Get A Better Night's Sleep? Here's Why You Should Consider Nixing Sugar

January 17, 2020

Despite the growing pool of evidence that sugar wreaks havoc on our bodies, the majority of us still sprinkle, pour and slather liberally, in the name of deliciousness. We simply can’t help ourselves. Consider, too, that many of us follow one or more dietary restrictions and lumping sugar into the must not eat category feels like just another funsucker. Add to this that many of us are also busy bodies without the time to cook every single meal from scratch and processed foods—at least in some small quantity—are inevitably a part of the picture.

Did you know that sugar might be interfering with that sleep of yours, though? And in more ways than one. So, if you’ve been needing motivation to hop on the meal prep bandwagon, this might just be it.

Sleep is essential to our well-being. Seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night keeps our brains and bodies running smoothly. From helping to consolidate memories and material learned during the day to protecting the brain from Alzheimer’s disease, our nightly rest and relaxation is essential to our health. We live at a time, however, when disruption to our sleep cycle is more widespread than ever before. Light, noise and air pollution, stress and anxiety and finally poor diet and lifestyle choices factor into the quality and quantity of our zzz’s. We might not be able to do a whole lot about the sirens that wake us at 3am or the city lights that keep those constellations so often hidden from view, but by reducing our sugar intake, we’re certainly giving ourselves a helping hand.

It has been shown that diets high in saturated fat and sugar lead to reduced deep, restorative sleep and increased number of times awoken during the night. This has serious implications. Sleep fragmentation has been linked to increased risk of migraines, diabetes and even loneliness among many others. Then there’s the added factor that too much sugar late in the day—much like caffeine—serves as a stimulant. We are designed to wind down, come evening. That means low lighting and restful activities are key. Throw a load of sugar into the mix and the body becomes conflicted; on the one hand—biologically, governed by its circadian rhythm—it wants to prepare for bed; on the other, it has been given the fuel it needs to stay active and awake.

Sugar activates dopaminergic centers in the brain, which makes us feel good as a result. When this happens, the logical response is to consume more of that sweet food. If we’re not careful, addiction can result, with a plethora of downstream implications to follow such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Over long periods of time, elevated sugar consumption actually changes gene expression in key parts of the brain responsible for this sugar-dopamine interaction. This means that even more sugar is required to get the same “high” and the vicious cycle continues.

If your body weight increases, so does your risk of sleep apnea, which is the term used to describe the disturbance of sleep through interrupted breathing. This can occur through various mechanisms that obstruct the airway, causing the sleeper to stir. In the most severe of cases, this occurs consistently throughout the night every few minutes, leaving the poor individual perpetually exhausted and unable to focus properly. Consider that many of these people drive (because, frighteningly, we have laws about drunk driving but not for the sleep-deprived) and you can start to see the problem. Did you know that it has been shown that sleep deprivation has the same effects on reaction time as alcohol intoxication?

There are various factors that influence Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), from body weight to sleeping habits to that deviated septum you developed from a broken nose, but one of the most common ways it occurs is simply through sleeping on your back. During sleep, the body relaxes and as a result, the tongue can fall into the throat and either partially or completely block the airway. This can result in snoring or, in more severe cases, being repeatedly awoken as the brain realizes that it needs more oxygen. There’s also the chance that your bed-sharer—if you have one—prods or kicks you until you turn onto your side, but that’s beside the point.

We know that losing weight is an effective treatment for OSA, but a new study has shown that it’s reducing tongue fat specifically (weird, I know) that can really do the trick. A total of 67 participants with mild to severe OSA who were obese (meaning their Body Mass Index (BMI) exceeded 30.0) underwent either a strict diet or weight loss surgery. The patients lost nearly 10 percent of their body weight, on average, within six months and OSA scores improved by 31% as a result. The weight loss also resulted in a reduction in the jaw mass and airway which improved OSA as well, but not to the same degree as the loss of tongue fat.

Ethnicity is thought to play a role, making some people more predisposed to fatty tongues, but across the board, this research suggests that weight loss can do marvelous things for those suffering from fragmented sleep. With sugar a key culprit, we’d be best to start there.

Everything in moderation is the motto that I live by. I’m obsessed with baking and I like chocolate and there’s nothing like a smoothie when I’m in the mood for one. But those things aren’t what’s doing the damage; high fructose corn syrup is the devil incarnate and it’s found in so many processed foods in the US. If you’re struggling with your sleep, cut back on the packaged stuff and see if you notice a difference.

How’s your sleep?


Photo: Cristian Newman on Unsplash; Kate Stone Matheson on Unsplash
Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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