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For Truly Sweet Dreams, Beware of Sugar

If your Valentine’s Day plans include digging something sweet out of a heart-shaped box, be warned: Studies show that those chocolate candies and conversation hearts can send your blood sugar on a hormone-driven roller coaster that can cause unwanted nighttime awakenings and hurt your overall quality of sleep.

Here’s how it works: When you eat simple carbohydrates like sweets, it causes your blood sugar to rise, and you get a rush of energy. The body responds by releasing insulin to help digest and store all that sugar, but oftentimes that causes your blood sugar to drop too far—the “sugar crash.” The body responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones to drive blood sugar up again. That makes you hungry, you crave more sugar, and the “ride” continues.

This is unpleasant during the daytime and can make you ravenously hungry, even if you ate just a few hours ago. And at night, it can wreak havoc on your sleep, as you are jolted awake by the stew of hormones—including cortisol and adrenaline—that the body uses to try to regulate its fluctuating blood sugar.

How can you tell if you’re on this roller coaster?

  • You awaken unexpectedly during the night or even get up for a “midnight snack.”
  • You have strong sugar cravings.
  • You have a daily energy crash in the afternoon.
  • You find yourself drinking caffeine or snacking to relieve fatigue.

If this is you, your sleep will benefit from a more balanced diet, including plenty of protein and healthy fats, and limiting carbohydrates to complex, fiber-rich options like legumes and vegetables. And not just before bed—a 2016 study showed a causal link between a high-sugar diet and light, interrupted sleep.

The best thing you can do for sleep is to avoid simple carbohydrates entirely and stick to fiber-rich, balanced, healthy meals. (There are also a few foods we know can help specifically with sleep.)

But if you’re not ready to give up sugar entirely, or if you want to indulge in a box of seasonal chocolates, here are a few things you can try to keep your blood sugar more stable:

  • Eat mixed meals. If you are eating sugar, be sure to eat it with a balanced meal that includes protein, fat and micronutrients. This causes a smaller blood sugar spike than eating sugar by itself.
  • Get some exercise. This isn’t to “burn off” the calories, but because physical activity helps your cells absorb sugar for energy, and because regular exercise can help the body keep blood sugar within a normal range.
  • Eat more fiber. Soluble fiber, in particular, helps slow the absorption of sugar and can help control blood sugar spikes. It also makes you feel fuller, reducing your food intake.
  • Stay hydrated. Not drinking enough water can cause your kidneys to retain fluid, which means excess sugar is not as easily flushed out of your body through urine. Dehydration can also cause the liver to release more sugar into the blood.
  • Take some vinegar. A study showed that drinking vinegar significantly reduced the blood sugar after a carb-heavy meal.
  • Take your vitamins. Chromium and magnesium have both been linked to blood sugar control.

When you improve your sleep by getting your blood sugar under control, you get another benefit: Better sleep can reduce sugar cravings, making it even easier to keep your good habits going.