What really causes waking in the middle of the night

Did you wake up at 3:00 again this morning? Turns out, your blood sugar may be to blame.

I have been speaking on waking in the middle of the night for a few of years now and it’s definitely the most common reason people come to my lectures. If the exhausted crowds at my talks are anything to go by, the typical insomnia stats seem to severely under represent this problem.

There are a few common types of insomnia that I will discuss in upcoming blogs. You might suffer from one or more of these slumber stoppers, and each has a distinct cause. This week I’ll explain why you are waking in the middle of the night and what to do about it.

For years researchers at the Vancouver-based Canadian Centre For Functional Medicine heard the same comment from participants in their weight loss trials: “I’m sleeping better”.  Since these were weight loss studies and not sleep studies, researchers didn’t pay too much attention to this added benefit at first. Then they began to employ a new technology that monitored participants’ blood sugar levels continuously for periods of 24 hours and longer. That revealed trends in blood sugar changes that had never been seen before, and it led to an astonishing realization: in most cases waking at 3 am is not a true sleep problem, it’s a blood sugar problem.

Here’s what happens. When people gain weight, especially abdominal fat, blood sugar levels gradually begin to fluctuate more in response to eating. Although you’ve likely heard that having high blood sugar is a bad thing (and it is), in fact, it’s rapidly falling blood sugar that will produce noticeable symptoms.

When blood sugar plummets 2 things happen:

  1. Special brain cells (glial cells) that monitor the glucose levels will drive you to EAT. And not carrots or celery, either. Those craving will be for sweet or starchy foods that will get your glucose back up fast. Do you often feel like snacking from dinner until bedtime, or crave sweets in the evening? That’s a sure sign you are on the blood sugar roller coaster.
  2. The adrenal glands produce adrenalin. This is an emergency blood sugar raising tactic. An adrenalin surge during sleep will wake you up.

As it turns out, people experiencing glycemic fluctuation during the day are prone to a blood sugar crash while they are sleeping, at about 3:00 am, and this causes waking in the middle of the night.

What if you are waking in the middle of the night but you’re not overweight, maybe even on the thin side? Keep reading, slimmy, I’m getting to you. Some (usually thin) individuals report that they need to eat every three hours or they experience hypoglycemic symptoms – they might even carry snacks or hard candy for “emergencies”. If this describes you, then you are also on the blood sugar roller coaster and will benefit from my advice.

Ok, so now you know why you wake in the middle of the night, what are you going to do about it? Stabilize your blood sugar.

  1. Avoid high-glycemic index foods that will cause your blood sugar to spike (sugar, white flour, pop, juice, sugary drinks). Chose whole, unprocessed, foods without added sugar.
  2. Eat regular meals and don’t skip breakfast. In fact, what you eat for breakfast will set the tone for your blood sugar for the rest of the day, so make it a good one.
  3. Have some protein, some fat and lots of fiber* with each meal. These three elements will keep your sugar stable.
  4. Take chromium. 200 micrograms daily helps your body use insulin better and reduces with sugar cravings.

*When is comes to dietary fiber, we often think of bran. Bran is insoluble fiber, and although it will improve regularity and contribute to colon health, it won’t stabilize your blood sugar. That job belongs to soluble fiber, the invisible, complex polysaccharide found in whole, unprocessed fruit, veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds. Soluble fiber will absorb water to form a natural fiber gel in the stomach. The gel will combine with sugar to release it more slowly into the blood stream, buffering the impact on blood sugar levels. For more info about soluble fiber that balances blood sugar click here.

What if you started waking in the middle of the night during menopause? Yes, hormones are to blame, but not the ones you might think. Blood sugar stabilizing will still help you, but you might need some additional support. Start working on your blood sugar and I’ll explain the rest of the story next week.

So, are you waking in the middle of the night? Does this info makes sense? Share your thoughts by posting a comment!