Sugar or sleep? Which one do you choose?

Because it might well be that you can’t have both. I certainly can’t. When cutting down daily sugar intake you can see the results in your sleep almost immediately, so it’s definitely worth testing whether you are sensitive to sugar. It goes without saying that sugar tolerance varies person to person and some of us are more resilient to the white poison than others.

Have you been told to eat small meals 6 times a day? I have been and have always thought that’s the right way to do it, plus it should keep the blood sugar levels stable. However, eating many small meals a day or just “grazing for habit” may cause trouble sleeping. What!!?

Who can resist this stuff? Born in Candilandia (Finlandia) I definitely can't. It's a norm there to have 200 grams at one go.

Who can resist this stuff? Born in Candilandia (Finlandia) I definitely can’t – this is a constant battle. It’s a norm there to have 200 grams at one go, the faster the better…


I keep a sleep diary and noticed recently a sharp correlation between my daily sugar intake and the following night’s sleep. Put it simply: when my sugar intake rose above recommendations (~50 gram daily) my sleep became immediately broken and restless. Similarly, when I stayed off sugar my nights calmed down and I felt able to fall back asleep much faster in the middle of the night. I couldn’t believe what I found as I haven’t seen much news, research or articles about this angle even though I follow the topic intensively.

Dr John Douillard explains the sugar-sleep process: “You eat every 2-3 hours all day (either very intentional healthy meals intended to boost metabolism, or just grazing and snacking out of habit). As a result, your body comes to expect getting fed every 2-3 hours, right? You go to bed at the end of the day and expect to sleep through the night for 8-9 hours with no food.”

He further reveals: “Humans are designed to burn fat through the night because it burns long and slow, in contrast to sugar and carbs which burn quickly and then break the fat-burning fast with break-fast. Today, because of undetected blood sugar issues, many people never go into fat metabolism during the night at all, instead attempting to burn sugar and carbs through the night as they did during the day. With sugar and short chain carbs delivering only short, quick emergency bursts of energy, sleeping through the night becomes an insurmountable task.”

As a result our nights are restless and full of interruptions (I can relate to this – that’s me on sugar-high) and we wake up tired (even when I have slept 7+ hours) and reach for carb and sugar-rich food, sending the blood sugar level right back up. Without realizing it, cravings for quick energy drinks, bars, breads, pastas and sweets become the norm. It’s worth thinking also how much sugar alcohol has (well…a lot).  So perhaps some of the tiredness after a decent party night in fact comes from sugar-high?

So what is good level of daily sugar intake? It’s surprisingly low, you can get it so easily without grasp of realization. The new WHO draft guideline proposes that sugars should be less than 10% of total energy intake per day. It further suggests that a reduction to below 5% of total energy intake per day would have additional benefits. Five per cent of total energy intake is equivalent to around 25 grams (around 6 teaspoons) of sugar per day for an adult of normal Body Mass Index (BMI). Much of the sugars consumed today are “hidden” in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets. For example, 1 tablespoon of ketchup contains around 4 grams (around 1 teaspoon) of sugars. A single can of Fanta contains up to 40 grams (around 10 teaspoons) of sugar. So there you go…living according to these standards means practically sugar-free living because we get so much hidden sugar already in basic food like pasta and bread etc…”deep sigh”. I have given in to so many of my vices already, do I really need to give up sugar too? As I have been trying cut down sugar lately my finding is: as you go closer to zero levels, it gets easier by time….just like with with any other drug…So my next question goes…is sugar in fact a drug?

Paul van der Velpen, the head of Amsterdam’s health service, wants to see sugar tightly regulated. ”Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug. There is an important role for government. The use of sugar should be discouraged. And users should be made aware of the dangers,” he wrote on an official public health website. He also thinks it should be treated as any addiction: “Sugar is actually a form of addiction. It’s just as hard to get rid of  the urge for sweet foods as of smoking. Thereby diets only work temporarily.   Addiction therapy is better.” According to a new research study, refined sugar is far more addictive than cocaine - one of the most addictive and harmful substances currently known.

Awareness is definitely rising. MD Mark Hyman goes even further: ”The $1 trillion industrial food system is the biggest drug dealer around, responsible for contributing to tens of millions of deaths every year and siphoning trillions of dollars from our global economy through the loss of human and natural capital.”

So what are the concrete steps to improve our sugar-sleep relationship? Dr John Doiullard lists therapies to support blood-sugar-related sleep issues:

1. Eat three meals a day with no snacks.

2. Eat whole foods – avoid processed foods.

3. Avoid baked goods, simple carbs and starchy veggies.

4. Eat fruits whole and avoid juice.

5. Increase intake of non starchy veggies – eat lots at each meal.

6. Get 1 gram of protein per day for each pound of body weight, just until sleep normalizes.

7. Drink 1/2 of your ideal body weight in ounces of water per day.

No big surprises on this list. My personal advice is simply to avoid visible sugar as good as we can. However, I don’t believe in a black or white world and think total denial will only lead to binging bursts. Therefore I tend to believe in moderation. This means learning what moderation really means, ie 4 pieces of chocolate (the darker the better) rather than 200 grams. Little choices can make a huge difference with your sleep. It has definitely done so with mine.

I would love to hear about your sugar-sleep observations. Please do share what helps you to get off sugar, your observations about the relationship between sugar and sleep, etc! This is a topic that interests me widely (probably because it is so challenging for me…).

Good night, sleep tight!


Helena x




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