“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds.” – Jojo Jensen
I used to believe that I could get by on 6 hours of sleep a night — and then I started writing this sleep-related series. As I now write the last installment in the series, I realize that I feel so much better when I prioritize getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Getting the right amount of sleep isn’t easy; with work, exercise, kids, home and relationships, it takes a commitment to make it to bed earlier.
In addition to committing to going to bed earlier, getting the right amount of sleep requires another commitment — balancing your blood sugar. Blood sugar can affect your ability to stay asleep, something I frequently see in my practice.
In Chinese medicine, the primary function of the liver is to move Qi, or energy, smoothly through the body. The liver also stores glucose in the form of glycogen. Staying up late can stimulate your liver to activate your energy, but it can also release your storage of blood sugar, giving you a second wind of energy.
Both elevated and/or depressed blood sugar levels can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. Perhaps you have a bowl of ice cream or some alcohol before going to bed. The level of sugar in your bloodstream will spike, signaling your pancreas to release insulin. This, in turn, will cause ‘the doors of your cells’ to open, which allows the sugar in. The sugar is either used for energy or is stored for later use.
After insulin does its job, all of the sugar is now in your cells and the level of sugar in your blood drops. Because the brain runs on sugar, it does not like having low sugar levels. Low blood sugar triggers your nervous system into fight or flight mode, ensuring that your body has enough oxygen and sugar to function. Cortisol and epinephrine are secreted to free up your stored sugar. You might wake up in the middle of the night thinking you have to pee, but it could well be a rush of epinephrine that actually caused you to wake up.
This yoyo pattern (low blood sugar, sugar cravings, binging on sweets, the resulting high blood sugar and high insulin) takes its toll on your body. While the daily ups and downs cause weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, and night sweats, the long term consequence of this pattern leads toward diabetes. And, whether you have high or low blood sugar, you are increasing your chances of developing diabetes. I see this in both adults and children.
So the first step to sleeping soundly is to BALANCE YOUR BLOOD SUGAR! The goal is to maintain an even level of glucose in your bloodstream, with no spikes or drops. When you eat a diet high in good fats and proteins, your body can use these slow-burning fuels as a sustained energy supply. When you eat simple carbohydrates, sugar and, worse yet, high fructose corn syrup, you are sending your body into the pre-diabetic yoyo rollercoaster ride. Unfortunately, the fake sugars in diet sodas also create the same cascade of hormones of insulin, cortisol, and epinephrine.
If your body craves a sweet taste, keep things in moderation and pair your sweets with good fats and proteins. And if you do wake up in the middle of the night, or if you know you get hypoglycemic (suffer low blood sugar), try eating healthy fats or proteins before bed, (a spoon full of nut butter, avocados or yogurt), rather than a bowl of cereal.
A balanced blood sugar level is imperative not only for good sleep but for the maintenance of cognition, steady nerves, a healthy weight, good eyesight and the smooth running of many other vital processes in the body. Type 2 diabetes, a disease caused by the pancreas being unable to keep up with chronic elevations of blood sugar, is a condition related somewhat due to genetics and mostly a result of lifestyle. (Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition of the immune system, a very different etiology.) Type 2 diabetes is completely reversible if diagnosed and treated early; yet, while there are 463 million adults living with diabetes today, it is estimated that by 2045, that number will rise to 700 million. Type 2 diabetes is an epidemic.
How do you know if you have high or low blood sugar? Ask your doctor to test your fasting glucose, insulin, Hemoglobin A1c and then have a functional medicine doctor interpret the results!
If you wake up in the middle of the night or have difficulty falling asleep, feel free to reach out to me. I love solving the mystery of symptoms to help people regain balance. Let’s work together to optimize the most important hours of the day — your sleep!