What really causes waking in the middle of the night

Friday, October 29th, 2010 @ 7:30PM

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!

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Categories: Insomnia

17 Comments to "What really causes waking in the middle of the night" add comment
Deborah Lapointe
2012/01/20 at 1:46 am

I am 50 yrs old 5 foot 4inches and 135 lbs and went through menopause at 47. I have been on bio identical estrogen and progesterone for 2yrs now. it has helped with a lot of my symptoms but I have had problems with sleeping for many years. I am able to fall asleep but am always awake by about 3:oo or 4:00 am every night and toss and turn until I have to get up at7:00 am. I do notvdrink caffeine or smoke and have tried all the bedtime remedies I can think of. No problem falling asleep….can’t stay asleep and alwayscfeeling tired. Any help would be appreciated.

2012/01/20 at 8:11 pm

Have you checked out the two blogs I have posted in this, Deborah? Usually waking at this time of the night means blood sugar fluctuations are at the root of the problem. I have had great results with patients taking PGX to stabilize their blood sugar. Other signs of fluctuating blood sugar include cravings, especially for sweets or starchy foods, a desire to snack in the evening after dinner and an energy slump around in the afternoon. Check out those blogs and let me know what you think.

Susan DeLaney
2012/07/21 at 3:50 pm

I have been waking up at 3 or 4 am consistently for some time. I take ambien a couple times a week so I can get a least a couple good nights of sleep, but I know it is not a solution. I am so glad I found your article. I believe this is the answer I need, and I plan to put your advice into action asap. Thank you so much!

2012/11/10 at 3:33 pm

JUST now read this blog (directed from Healing Thyself’s 10pm bedtime challenge). This totally makes sense. I’ve been on a “healing my gut” journey for about 3 months and have been eating less junk and more real food (as I can afford it). My staple snack is a raw almonds, pecans and raisin mix. That would explain the ‘less interrupted’ sleep last night as I went to bed early. It sounds like I would benefit from taking chromium, just to help stabilize my blood sugars more. Once my body begins to heal itself properly, I will work on the weight. I have about 40 lbs to go. Thanks for these posts. I’ll visit again!

2013/03/15 at 10:19 pm

After going one this specific diet how long will it take to improve one’s sleeping pattern? Thanks.

Jai Latif
2013/05/11 at 8:29 am

I have been waking up at night on a regular basis around 4.00 am or 5.00am (although yesterday I woke up at 1.00 am). I then have a binge where I eat biscuits, chocolates or sweets. I think this has contributed to my lack of weight loss, in spite of my exercising regularly. I’m glad I read your article. I hope I will be able to stop doing this now.

2013/05/11 at 5:41 pm

It depends on how serious you blood sugar swings are and how closely you are following the diet, but some people report improved sleep within a week and most people within two weeks.

2013/05/24 at 10:41 am

I’m a healthy 41 male who drives a truck
For a living.
I wake up almost every hour or 2 thru
Out a eight hour sleep period. What can I
Do to improve my sleep better?

2013/05/24 at 6:21 pm

Waking up that frequently can mean you are not getting into the deepest stages of sleep or aren’t staying asleep between sleep cycles (which are about 90 minutes long). Try L-theanine, it’s an amino acid that helps relax you and improves sleep quality. Taking 100 mg at bedtime, or even an hour or two before bed, promotes much more restful, uninterrupted sleep. Let me know how it turns out!

2013/06/04 at 1:30 am

Thanks Dr. Kate for all your replies.

PS: do you have any articles on Heavy Metal Detox?

2013/09/28 at 2:23 pm

So glad I found your site … I’m a healthy 60 yo male, but I’ve been waking bolt upright – heart pounding very consistently just about every night at 3AM for years, takes an hour or so to get back to sleep … thought it might be a health issue got many things checked but nothing significant was ever found, doc suggested a sleep study or possibly was sleep apnea, but since I was already asleep for 4 or 5 hours he said it was not likely it was sleep apnea …

I always thought it might be my wife stirring (I’m a light sleeper) or the cats or something like that. I never considered that it might be my overnight blood sugar level.

Going to work on this and check back with my results to the group …

Best Regards and Thanks …


2013/10/08 at 8:27 pm

I have always awaken in the middle of the night in search of sweets.
Actually all my siblings do. We blamed our dad since he does te same.
I had a brief period where it stopped not sure why but it did not last long.
I have to get something sweet or I will not go back to sleep.
We literally keep candy in the night stand by the bed.
I will begin making the suggestions changes and see if that works.
Thanks for the advice.

Julie Chismar
2014/02/10 at 8:10 am

Tried clicking on the HERE button for soluble info above and did not work. Here is info found on the web:
Soluble vs. Insoluble Fiber

Soluble fiber dissolves in water. Insoluble fiber does not. To some degree these differences determine how each fiber functions in the body and benefits your health.

Soluble fibers attract water and form a gel, which slows down digestion. Soluble fiber delays the emptying of your stomach and makes you feel full, which helps control weight. Slower stomach emptying may also affect blood sugar levels and have a beneficial effect on insulin sensitivity, which may help control diabetes. Soluble fibers can also help lower LDL (“bad”) blood cholesterol by interfering with the absorption of dietary cholesterol.

Sources of soluble fiber: oatmeal, oat cereal, lentils, apples, oranges, pears, oat bran, strawberries, nuts, flaxseeds, beans, dried peas, blueberries, psyllium, cucumbers, celery, and carrots.
Insoluble fibers are considered gut-healthy fiber because they have a laxative effect and add bulk to the diet, helping prevent constipation. These fibers do not dissolve in water, so they pass through the gastrointestinal tract relatively intact, and speed up the passage of food and waste through your gut. Insoluble fibers are mainly found in whole grains and vegetables.

Sources of insoluble fiber: whole wheat, whole grains, wheat bran, corn bran, seeds, nuts, barley, couscous, brown rice, bulgur, zucchini, celery, broccoli, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, dark leafy vegetables, raisins, grapes, fruit, and root vegetable skins.
How Much Dietary Fiber Do You Need?

Most Americans get only about 15 grams of fiber per day in their diet. But the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends about 25 grams for women under 50 and teenage girls. Teenage boys and men under 50 (who consume more calories than women) require upwards of 30-38 grams of dietary fiber daily.

Don’t worry about what kind of fiber you are taking in unless you are seeking a specific health benefit, such as eating more soluble fiber to lower cholesterol. Instead, focus on eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. This will provide a variety of soluble and insoluble fibers and all of the health benefits.

As you increase the fiber in your diet, you may experience more intestinal gas. Increasing fiber gradually will allow your body to adapt. Because some fibers absorb water, you should also drink more water as you increase fiber.
Thank you for your info on blood sugar. You explain it so well. Will work on regulating the blood sugar.

Blaine Leonard
2014/03/08 at 4:15 pm

I have for years gotten up in the middle of the night and eaten. It’s usually multiple times and always something super sugary. Sometimes I walk up to the corner store at 4am for donuts and cookies or something around thoes lines. I have done this every night for years and my mom does the same thing. I am 38, 5 foot 10 and 180 pounds. I am not over weight but would like to loose 3 inches off my waste.

2014/03/12 at 7:33 pm

You have severe nocturnal hypoglycemia. Not everyone with this condition is obviously overweight – some of the worst cases appear to be slim – but the fact that you want to lose inches off your waist along with the nightly sugar cravings suggest you likely have deep abdominal fat (around the organs) and are headed down the path of diabetes. All of the suggestions in my blog post, avoiding wheat and stabilizing blood sugar are important for you. Another tip would be to engage in brief, high intensity resistance training. Check out Body by Science by Doug McGuff. As an added bonus, if you are doing this program properly you can get away with eating more carbs.

Inna B
2014/03/24 at 7:04 am

Hi ,

I have been suffering from waking up in the middle of night at 3 am for some time now.
I have been getting up and feeling like a have a panic attack and this feeling used to be with me through out the day after that.I was prescribed cipralex 10 mg and i started sleeping again and felt better.
But now, couple of month after , i started to wake up at 3 am again, not feeling so nervous like before but still- it hurts me as i feel tired during the next day.
I dont eat healthy at all, and i started to neglect my health about a month ago, started eating a lot of sweets, pasta right before bed, a lot of coca cola and stuff.

Does my waking up at 3 am has to do with your article? can you please advice .

2014/03/24 at 9:26 am

Hi, Inna. Yes you are waking for the same reasons I outline in the blog. When blood sugar drops, adrenalin goes up. In addition to waking you from sleep this can cause feeling of anxiety – sometimes severe. Many people report they wake up with their heart pounding at 3 am, this is all part of the same picture. The fact that you crave sweets and carbs, especially at night before bed, is typical of this condition.

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