Your parents insisted it was true. But is it really? Does sugar keep you awake?
It’s a common line of thought – one that you’ll no doubt recognize from your childhood as a hyper little kid getting on everybody’s nerves – that sugar can not only wind you up and fill you with short-lived energy, but that too much of it before bedtime can contribute to an awful, restless night’s sleep.
But is it actually true? Let’s find out.
Where does the no sugar before bed idea come from?
The concept that diet and behavior are linked in a pretty direct way is nothing new – in fact, many indicators point to the early 1970s as the time when a link between sugar (and additives/sugar alternatives) and hyperactivity became a popular belief amongst the general public.
The big name in this theory is Benjamin Feingold, who conceptualized a new diet, cutting down on food coloring, artificial additives and flavorings, as well as a reduced amount of straight up sugary foods in a bid to curb hyperactive or ‘up and down’ behavioral patterns.
This then influenced many further studies into the effects of a highly sugar-based diet, particularly in children, and the hyper behavior that they exhibited – thus the warnings from our parents.
However, even with these studies finding some link between them, there is still very little substantial evidence to really support the sugar-hyperactivity paradigm to this day.
You might want to take a minute to phone up your parents and give them a holier-than-thou speech.
With all that being said, sugar is still a far cry from a healthy ingredient in large doses, and comes with a whole list of dietary and health problems (not least an increase in body fat, as you’ll see from many anti-sugar campaigns today).
Could it just be a case of finding a reliable scapegoat? After all, if sugar is seen to promote hyperactivity and a surplus of energy, then of course it’s going to follow that sugar can have a huge impact over our ability to get some solid shut-eye come night time.
So…does sugar keep you awake?
One of the bigger issues with sugar being linked to patchy sleep patterns is that we’re looking at sugar as an individual ingredient here; as if, before bed, you’re dipping a tablespoon into a bag of caster and licking it clean.
This is, I hope, not the truth of the matter (otherwise, you may seriously need to take a look at your lifestyle/diet).
Most products we consume which are high in sugar are also packed to the gills with other harmful ingredients, namely caffeine, which does contribute to your inability to relax and fall into a deep sleep.
Bear in mind, especially, sweet alcoholic drinks or confectionary, too. Alcohol comes with its own plethora of effects over sleep, to begin with; meaning that once sugar is thrown into the mix it can be easy to target the wrong ingredient as the cause of a horrible night of tossing and turning.
Similarly eating heavily before bed, no matter if it’s a salad or a gateau, has been known to prompt insomnia due to the fact that your body isn’t getting a chance to digest properly before your head hits the pillow, which can lead to discomfort and varying energy levels.
It’s difficult to separate these issues from the actual question of sugar itself, which leads to myths such as ‘sugar keeps us up all night’ being spread throughout common culture and taken as fact.
So sugar gets a bad rep, which is a shame considering sugar may have a place in the bedroom after all..
Sugar before bed can actually help you sleep
Funnily enough, and as with a lot a of insubstantial sleep myths out there, the exact opposite is actually believed to be true now – that sugar might actually lend a hand in encouraging drowsiness and a restful night’s sleep.
The way this is thought to work involves the manner in which sugar/glucose can affect your blood sugar levels and inhibit some of the hormones that might contribute to a feeling of wakefulness (namely orexin – which works to regulate the body’s feelings of hunger and alertness).
Ever felt the ‘sugar crash’, where you get drowsy and lethargic shortly after eating too much sweet foods? This is the very phenomenon of orexin vs sugar in action.
This means that there is a fairly interesting case to be made for sugar to actually work as a sedative, rather than a pick-me-up, as it is often thought to be.
That being said, all of the other detrimental effects of a high sugar diet still apply, and gorging on sweet, unhealthy foods before bed is still to be discouraged in the grand scheme of things; it just means that eating chocolate before bed might not be the worst thing to help you drift off to sleep.