Can't sleep through the night? Maybe this is why

Are you one of those people who have no trouble falling asleep, but find that more often than not they just cannot stay asleep? This is a very common issue – but it can potentially be resolved very easily. 

Cortisol – a stress hormone – is what wakes us up in the morning and gets us out of bed. It is meant to be high in the morning and then gradually decreases over the course of the day. In the evening, cortisol is low and gives way to melatonin – the sleep hormone. They are antagonistic, meaning when one is high the other is low. Usually. 

While it is part of the normal circadian rhythm, cortisol is also secreted when we are under stress. It is this hormone, that governs the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction, the physical stress response that is designed to help us fight off an attacker or run away when under threat. A rather different stressor, but one that triggers cortisol, too, is a drop in blood sugar levels. 

Glucose is a type of sugar and a fuel source for our body cells. It’s not good to have too much glucose in your blood stream, but low glucose levels aren’t good either. When it is high, insulin – another hormone – will act to reduce blood sugar. When it is low, other hormones kick in to bring blood sugar up, and cortisol is one of those. 

If you tend to wake up in the middle of the night, this may be because your blood sugar has dropped too low. 

Why would that happen? 

Is your diet generally high in sugar and/or carbohydrates? You don’t need to have a sweet tooth to create high blood sugar levels: Starchy foods such as bread, pasta, rice and the like also break down into glucose during digestion and can drive up blood glucose levels as much as actual sugar does. What goes up must come down – and that might just happen in the middle of the night. High blood glucose triggers insulin and about 2-3 hours later your blood sugar drops too low and cortisol kicks in. Bam – you’re awake. 

Or perhaps you had your dinner early – long before bedtime, and your blood sugar is low because you haven’t eaten in a while? 

Or you don’t like to eat starchy foods at night and have a healthy dinner of steak and veg or asparagus and poached egg – brilliant! – but if you are not ‘fat adapted’ that might cause your blood sugar to drop in the night. 

What can you do about it? 

Learn how to balance your blood sugar – not just at night, but throughout the day. It is a much healthier way to be, not just because you reduce the amount of cortisol going around your system, but also because it’ll lower insulin (which is a whole other story). If your blood sugar is not going up and down like a rollercoaster, cortisol drops in the middle of the night become a thing of the past. 
If you tend to eat early, consider having a small carbohydrate snack before bed. You don’t need much, so don’t use it as an excuse to scoff a slice of chocolate cake. Just half a small banana with almond butter or an oatcake with cream cheese will do. 

Better still in the long run is to become ‘fat adapted’ – as we all used to be. Hunter gatherers are able to switch seamlessly between running on sugar or fat. For cavemen, carbs were in short supply, yet they didn’t starve to death when they ran out of glucose – because they could switch to fat burning. 

We can still do that, it’s just that our bodies may have forgotten how, because we never do run out of carbs, do we? There’s always more where that came from, so the body has no need to switch to fat burning. 

If you’d like to know how to get your body into fat burning mode to have restful nights again (or to burn some fat), contact me on melanie@nutriliciousnutrition.co.uk.