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Sleep Hygiene Tip of the Week || What about those sugarplums anyway? Will eating sugar hurt my sleep?

“Sugarplums,” artist unknown.

Sugarplums are actually not fairies, as commonly assumed by fans of the ballet. They are a kind of confection made either of dried fruit (plum) and sugar, or a sugary gelatin confection shaped like a plum and colored purple.

They are an old-fashioned treat that probably isn’t consumed as much anymore as was done in the old days. But sugarplums are also a more generalized reference to all things sugary and sweet and enjoyed at the holidays. This can include candy canes, butterscotches, ribbon candies, Turkish delight, pralines, penuche, divinity fudge, white almond bark… ANY candy, really, that is not made of chocolate.

Okay, so it’s the holidays, and that means these foods enter into our diets more frequently for a temporary (let’s hope!) time in our lives as part of the festivities. And that’s okay. But consuming lots of sugary treats will have an impact on your ability to sleep well, so it’s a good idea to know what to expect before you launch into a bowl of eggnog taffy or those leftover gumdrops from last night’s gingerbread house party right before you go to bed.

What goes up must come down 
Sugary foods eaten right before bedtime can drastically increase, then decrease your blood glucose levels, as your body is forced to release hormones to establish balances between blood sugar and insulin. This swing in hormone release can impair sleep, which is a body process that relies upon, among other things, a balance in your blood chemistry. You may find you have early-night insomnia, for instance, or you wake up an hour or so after falling asleep; this can be due to glucose regulation and even the “crash” (or withdrawal) that comes after consuming a lot of sugar. (This also holds for alcohol “nightcaps.”)

This is not the same thing as being “hyperactive.” Remember the old days when people said kids who were hyperactive at bedtime probably just ate a bunch of sugar? Not really true. Sugary foods will spike your energy levels briefly but what follows is a downward spiral of energy leading to sleepiness. Here’s a great article at Slumberwise which illustrates the sugar-sleep paradox.

Carbo loading
Sugary foods, by the way, are carbohydrate in nature. Other carbohydrates that aren’t sugary include foods like rice, bananas, bread, pasta and warm milk, which could actually make you feel more sleepy afterward than straight-up sugary foods might. The body processes these kinds of carbs more slowly than pure sugar (and its cousins, honey, corn syrup, and the like), so you may only feel the hypoglycemic (blood sugar crash) after-effect and not the initial rise in energy (hyperglycemia, or blood sugar high) like you might after eating a candy cane. These carbs inspire your brain to send messages to your digestive system to slow down for the purpose of starting the sleeping process. If you want to sleep, this is not really a problem; however, if you’re working the night shift, then you might want to avoid these foods in order to stay alert on the job.

Nighttime bathroom breaks
One of the things that happens when your blood sugar is out of whack is that your body will try to eliminate the excess sugar. Dr. Lynn Maarouf, RD and diabetes education director at the Stark Diabetes Center in Galveston points out that “any time your blood sugar is really high, your kidneys try to get rid of it by urinating, so you are probably getting up and going to bathroom all night long — and not sleeping well.” This isn’t true only for diabetics, but for prediabetics and healthy individuals who have consumed a large amount of sugar in one sitting. That is what the body’s filtration system does: it kicks out the excess waste products through urination and/or bowel movement, both which should be more active processes during the day, but not so much at night.

If you are needing to use the restroom all night, you should probably mention this to your primary care physician so they can look for reasons as to why this is happening. It could just be a temporary imbalance in processes brought on by increased sugar intake, but it could also be a sign of metabolic dysfunction or something else entirely, like sleep apnea, which causes the body to frequently arouse due to lack of oxygen, which sends signals to the bladder to be emptied upon awakening.

Here’s a great article on sugar intake and sleep quality worth checking out if you are concerned about the possibility of developing or aggravating a diabetic condition.

How to achieve sweet dream
So what does one do with all these wonderful sugarplums winking at us at our neighborhood party, the office kitchen or the family gathering by candlelight? If you already have a known metabolic condition, you know the answer is to stick to the healthy stuff. But if you don’t, and you need to get a good night’s sleep after the party is over, try to limit yourself to a few sugary treats and break up the sugar infusion with some crudite or a small protein bite in between to keep your blood sugar on an even keel. Drinking water in between also helps you to avoid the sugar-insulin rollercoaster ride by helping you to avoid dehydration, which concentrates your blood sugar and makes you hyperglycemic.

Whatever you do, be prepared. If all else fails, you might not get all your winks that night, and remember, if you’re a believer in the fat man… Santa does see you when you’re sleeping, and he knows when you’re awake…

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