How To Optimize Your Sleep To Eliminate Sugar Cravings

Sleep Medicine Specialist By W. Chris Winter, M.D.
Sleep Medicine Specialist
W. Chris Winter, M.D., is a board-certified and internationally recognized sleep medicine specialist, a board certified neurologist, and the author of The Sleep Solution.

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It’s Day 6 of mbg’s first-ever no-sugar challenge. All week long, we’ve been sharing tips, tricks, inspirational stories, and recipes to help you eliminate sugar.  You can check out the rules of the challenge (and the 10 best tips for eliminating sugar), try out the no-sugar smoothie supermodels are obsessed with, dive into whether or not fruit sugar is good for you, get a doctor’s guide for managing sugar withdrawals, and decode every sweetener, from stevia to coconut sugar. You can also head over to our Instagram account to see takeovers from some of the wellness world’s biggest celebrities. You can join them (and us!) in #mbgnosugarweek by simply cutting the sweet stuff for the next seven days (you can start today!). Use the hashtag #mbgnosugarweek and tag @mindbodygreen during your journey to be regrammed or even potentially see yourself on the site!

One big key (and often-overlooked!) way to increase your chance for success when trying to quit sugar is paying attention to your sleep. Over the past decade, there has been a wealth of information linking poor-quality and/or reduced-quantity sleep with negative metabolism and weight consequences.

There is no doubt that as a population we are getting heavier. The incidence of obesity and the metabolic consequences of obesity have risen in an alarming fashion over the years. At the same time there has been a similarly distressing trend toward people sleeping less and struggling more with their sleep. New research is proving that these two trends are intimately related.

Central to the process of the way we crave sugar is a chemical called ghrelin.

Ghrelin is a hormone that controls our cravings for carbohydrates and simple sugars. Ever had an overwhelming craving for a Heath bar? Ghrelin was right in the middle of that checkout-line dilemma.

When we sleep poorly or go for long periods of time without sleep, our bodies make more ghrelin. Think of it as your body’s emergency plan: “Since we can’t sleep ourselves awake to be functional during the day, we’ll just eat ourselves awake!” If this kind of thing happens sporadically, no big deal. If it is the norm and not the exception, your ability to resist those sugar cravings is going to be very impaired. Consider a 2004 study in which participants went from getting eight hours of sleep to five hours of sleep. This reduction led to a 15% higher level of ghrelin in their bodies. Double Stuf Oreos? Don’t mind if I do!

Photo: Simone Becchetti

As sleep deprivation continues and ghrelin levels rise, the ghrelin itself works to promote deep and more restful sleep. This means accumulating some ghrelin before we sleep actually helps us sleep better, indicating another reason not to eat right before we turn out the lights.

Once the eating has started, how do we turn it off? If ghrelin is responsible for controlling what we eat, what is controlling how much? In part, the answer is a chemical called leptin. Leptin is produced by our fat cells. It influences our satiety or feeling of fullness. When we are inadequately rested, we tend to produce less leptin, making us want to eat more. Again, when we are sleepy, the body almost resorts to trying to eat ourselves awake. In the same 2004 study mentioned above, the sleep-deprived subjects demonstrated a 15% lower level of leptin, leading them to eat more.

Beyond the changes in ghrelin and leptin, there are much more fundamental issues in terms of how our bodies deal with sugar when we sleep poorly. Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality create significant problems in the ways our bodies deal with glucose, with dysfunctional sleep leading to lower glucose tolerance and lower insulin sensitivity.

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Armed with this information, what can we do to optimize our sleep to help with these cravings?

First and foremost, get enough sleep. Inadequate sleep is not just total sleep deprivation. Staying up an extra hour to hear Stephen Colbert interview your favorite band counts, too. Set the DVR and get your sleep.

Second, understand that our hunger, like most other things in our bodies, follows a circadian rhythm. Studies have shown this hunger is the strongest at around 8:00 p.m. Knowing this, make sure you've eaten properly at appropriate intervals during the day. Be ready for these upswings in hunger and have appropriate snacks ready—if you can push through this time, your cravings will likely significantly diminish by 10 p.m. I think most would agree that a meal schedule that is a bit more protein-heavy in the morning and a bit more carb-heavy in the evening is helpful for sleep. High-glycemic carbs (like jasmine rice) coupled with foods high in tryptophan and melatonin can help with sleep. When in doubt, think about Thanksgiving-—our most sleep-promoting meal of the year!

Finally, make sure your sleep is of the highest quality. If your partner describes loud snoring sounds coming out of your mouth at night, don’t ignore them. Similarly, if your legs feel restless or there are other things that are off about your sleep, seek help for these conditions immediately (here are few tips to get you started; my book, The Sleep Solution, has many more). There's a reason why so many patients who figure out the reasons behind their inability to sleep well see positive changes in terms of weight, metabolism, and yes—sugar cravings.

Here's the rest of #mbgnosugarweek, in case you missed it! Plus, exactly what helps (and hurts!) when you insomnia.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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