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Blood sugar and sleep problems

By Amelia Willson | 4 Minute Read

Most of us are aware that their diet and weight can contribute to our risk for diabetes. It’s less common to realize that our sleep habits are involved, too.

Sleep plays a major role in your body’s ability to metabolize glucose. The quality of your sleep impacts how well your body responds to insulin and regulates your blood sugar levels.

The relationship between your blood sugar levels and your sleep is cyclical. Don’t get enough sleep, and your blood sugar levels go up, along with your risk of diabetes. Have blood sugar levels that are too high, and your sleep will suffer.

To enjoy restful sleep and maintain healthy blood sugar levels, you need to keep both in check. Keep reading to learn more about how your blood sugar levels impact your sleep.

How blood sugar levels impact sleep

Your sleep is dictated by your circadian rhythms – your body’s natural timing for when you should sleep, wake up, feel energized, and get hungry. The impetus behind these changes in energy and mood are driven in large part by your hormones and other bodily functions.

The normal ebb and flow

You may be unconscious for most of it, but while you sleep, a lot is going on. As you sleep, your brain keeps working, releasing hormones to restore your bones and muscle tissues, process memories, and prepare your body to eventually wake up when the time comes.

Melatonin, the sleep hormone, rules the night, inducing sleep and reaching its peak toward the middle of the night. But around 3am, your melatonin levels begin to fall as your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels rise.

Adrenaline and other growth hormones join your rising cortisol levels, heating up your body and preparing it to wake up energized and alert. As a result of this process, your blood sugar levels surge. Researchers nickname this the “dawn phenomenon,” referring to its occurrence in the early morning between 3 to 8am.

If you consistently follow a regular sleep schedule, enjoy at least 7 hours of sleep per night, and are generally healthy, this is no problem. Your insulin hormone kicks in to manage the sugar rush, directing your muscle, fat, and liver cells to respond by absorbing the glucose and restabilizing your blood sugar levels.

But if your insulin hormone doesn’t work as it should, as in people with diabetes, this natural fluctuation can wreak havoc with your system.

Hyperglycemia

If you have high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, your body doesn’t respond to insulin as well as it should. As a result, you have higher blood sugar levels that keep your body in a state of chronic stress.

Stress itself is a major trigger for insomnia, due to its effect on your nervous system. The more alert your nervous system is, the more difficult it is for your body to fully relax and sleep deeply.  

If you’re not getting enough sleep thanks to insomnia, it’s even more difficult for your body to function as it should and regulate your blood sugar levels. Researchers have found that chronically sleep-deprived individuals (those who sleep fewer than 7 hours per night) are more than twice as likely to develop, or already have, diabetes.

Individuals with hyperglycemia may have to urinate more frequently as well, as the kidneys jump in to try to flush the excess glucose from their system. These nighttime awakenings to use the restroom interrupt sleep, further contributing to insomnia.

Hypoglycemia

If you have low blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia, you’ll also suffer from sleep problems. Although having too much sugar is bad for your system, your body does need a baseline level of sugar to work and function as its should.

When you have low blood sugar levels, your body responds by releasing the same energizing growth hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline. These wake you up and stir your appetite – particularly for overly junky or sugary foods. In its attempt to restabilize your blood sugar levels, your body overreacts by making you ravenous for high-sugar foods.

The more you eat these types of foods, the more your body begins to crave them, continuing an up-and-down cycle of spiking and plummeting blood sugar levels. Meanwhile, your sleep becomes less restful, and your risk for obesity and diabetes increases.

If you eat these sugary foods during a time you should be asleep, according to your circadian rhythms, it can further disrupt your sleep-wake cycle. Your body hasn’t released the appropriate hormones or turned on the right biological functions to digest your food properly, and produce sufficient insulin to adequately address the increase in blood sugar. Researchers have found that these ill-timed sugar-cravings contribute to sleep deprivation, circadian misalignment, and lowered insulin sensitivity.

Stay balanced for more restful sleep

When you don’t get enough sleep, your hormone levels go haywire. It’s challenging for your body to metabolize glucose as it should, causing unhealthy variations in your blood sugar levels.

Getting quality sleep night after night will help balance your blood sugar levels, and keeping them balanced will make it easier for you to enjoy more restorative sleep. Follow these tips to get started.

  • Stick to a consistent sleep schedule. Aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night, and go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Eat consistently, too. Boost your metabolism by eating smaller meals more frequently, and avoid skipping meals. Stay hydrated with water, and avoid drinks with added sugar. The more you can train your body to a regular schedule, both for eating and sleeping, the easier it will be for your body to function as it should.
  • Work exercise into your schedule. Exercise lowers your risk of diabetes, helps you maintain a healthy body weight, and promotes restful sleep.
  • Regularly monitor your blood glucose levels. To avoid drops in blood sugar, work with your doctor to understand what and how often you should be eating. Opt for meals made with complex carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats that promote restful sleep. Avoid eating heavy meals before bed that cause indigestion.

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