How Sugar Tanks Your Sleep, and How You Can Get It Back

How Sugar Tanks Your Sleep, and How You Can Get It Back

Wondering whether that after-dinner ice cream or post-work soda are to blame for your tossing and turning? Wonder no more: There can be a connection between sugar and sleep — and it’s not a positive one.

Too much of the sweet stuff can sour your sleep quality, according to Michele Promaulayko, creator and author of Sugar Free 3. Here’s a quick rundown of how sugar and sleep are connected.

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1. Your Afternoon Slump Creates a Ripple Effect

You hit that midday energy dip and have a sugary treat as a pick-me-up, and you think it works — but that’s an illusion. In fact, you’re likely to feel even more depleted and exhausted than before reaching for that fix, says Promaulayko.

“We chow down on sugary treats to feel energized temporarily,” she says in Sugar Free 3. “But the reality is, in adulthood, the sugar high is a fallacy. It’s actually more likely to make us sleepy. Several studies show that orexin, a brain chemical that makes you feel awake, is inhibited when you eat sugar.”

A June 2019 meta-analysis of 31 studies, published in Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews, found that simple carbs like sugar decrease alertness and increase fatigue within an hour of consuming them. Promaulayko says that can have a ripple effect of eating more sugar and also being less inclined to exercise — which can both have a long-term effect on sleep quality.


2. Sweet Drinks Don’t Make for Sweet Dreams

In a study on more than 18,000 adults led by University of California San Francisco scientists, people who slept five or fewer hours a night are also more likely to drink significantly more sweetened beverages, especially ones with caffeine.

Although researchers note that it’s not clear whether drinking these beverages causes people to sleep less or whether those with short sleep cycles reach for these drinks to combat daytime sleepiness, the link is there.

That’s one of the benefits of Sugar Free 3, says Promaulayko.

“Without added sugars sparking a short-term ‘energy’ boost before bedtime,” she says, “we’re able to drift off naturally, leading to steadier energy levels when it matters most: during the day!”


3. Sugar and Sleep Create a Vicious Cycle

woman eating donuts at night | sugar and sleep

As you get less sleep due to energy regulation issues, you eat more sugary foods and drink more sweetened beverages, which leads to — you guessed it, even less sleep.

“This is a very common cycle, and it’s one of the biggest causes of sugar cravings,” says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of The Sleep Solution. Over time, this can lead to weight gain. That’s because both disrupted sleep and increased sugar intake are associated with weight increases, particularly when stress becomes involved.

“All of this becomes an interrelated cycle that leads to more sugar cravings and worse sleep,” Winter says.


4 Ways to Reclaim Your Sleep

Want to get back on track from your sleep? Start with these tips.

1. Think about how your whole day impacts your sleep

Promaulayko suggests incorporating more sleep-friendly strategies into your day, such as cutting caffeine consumption by 3 p.m., scenting your room with relaxing aromas like lavender, and refraining from using digital devices a few hours before bed. If you only think about sleep when your head hits the pillow, it’ll be harder to unwind.

2. Don’t skip your workouts

man working out with medicine ball | sugar and sleep

Exercise and sleep go hand in hand. While you don’t want to work out strenuously too close to bedtime (that can have an adverse effect on sleep), a little movement like walking or yoga could help you relax before bed. You might have to dig deep to find the energy at first, but working out could help you break the cycle of sugar and sleep.

3. Outsmart your cravings

“Sometimes, not getting enough sleep makes us hungry for foods we ordinarily wouldn’t crave, because sleep is a key player in the brain’s regulation of appetite,” says Promaulayko. “That’s why getting seven to nine hours, and focusing on cutting down on sugar so you feel better over time, is critically important.” Knowing this might be the nudge you need to step away from the candy dish when you want a pick-me-up!

4. Try Sugar Free 3

Designed by Promaulayko, who spent decades on the front lines of nutrition research, Sugar Free 3 is a simple plan to make cutting out added sugars, refined carbs, and artificial sweeteners easily do-able for anyone… and that includes you!