The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 g of sugar per day for women and 38 g for men, yet the average American consumes 71.14 g per day. Not only can excessive sugar consumption lead to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, high sugar consumption increases your chances of insomnia.
In addition, those who get less high-quality sleep are more likely to crave sugar, creating a cycle that can be hard to stop: eating sugar can make you sleep less, which can make you crave more sugar (that's addictive).
Research on Sugar Consumption and Insomnia
A study from 2016 published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine studied 26 adults who were put on an unrestricted diet where they could eat whatever they wanted. They consumed less fiber, more sugar, and more saturated fats. The result? This group had higher sleep latency (it took them longer to get to sleep), and more sleep arousals (they woke up more during the night). The amount of restful sleep was greatly reduced.
Researchers from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons found that when postmenopausal women consumed a diet high in refined carbohydrates (especially added sugars), they were more likely to develop insomnia. Women whose diet included higher amounts of vegetables, fiber, and fruit (not fruit juice, which has little fiber), were less likely to develop insomnia.
How Sugar Prevents Restful Sleep
There are several ways that the consumption of sugar, especially added sugar found in many processed foods, prevents getting a good night's rest.
Sugar, Adrenaline, and Cortisol
Simple carbohydrates, such as white rice, soda, and white bread are broken down in the body quickly. They have a higher glycemic index and create a faster increase in blood sugar compared to complex carbohydrates, which break down more slowly. High glycemic index foods cause your body to release insulin. The drop in blood sugar afterward can lead to the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones that research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says may interfere with sleep.
Another function of insulin is to maintain the health and growth of brain cells. As blood sugar levels increase, the brain becomes more resistant to insulin, and brain function reduces. A study that followed 5,000 people over 10 years found that people who have higher blood sugar levels have faster rates of cognitive decline. Alzheimer's is now often referred to as "type 3 diabetes," due to this relationship between blood sugar and brain function.
The Sleep Inflammation Connection
Inflammation has received a lot of attention in recent years as one of the common factors in many diseases. This is why you'll hear certain supplements and foods touted as "anti-inflammatory." However, inflammation is a useful and necessary process in the body. It's your body's first line of defense against anything perceived as an attack on your body, which includes infections, injuries, and toxins. The purpose of the inflammatory process is to isolate and eliminate the threat, then start healing.
The problem isn't inflammation, it's chronic inflammation. The Cleveland Clinic describes it as a "prolonged state of emergency" that can cause lasting damage to the heart, brain, and other organs.
Inflammation can be caused by too little sleep. A 2008 study published in Science Daily explains that even a loss of sleep of a few hours can cause inflammation, increasing the risk of heart disease and other autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers measured the levels of nuclear factor NF-kappa beta (NFKB), which is a marker of inflammation. These markers were assessed in healthy adults after a normal night of sleep and compared to levels after a night of partial sleep deprivation. They believe this has implications for understanding a wide range of diseases, including heart disease, some cancers, diabetes, and arthritis.
Inflammation also may prevent getting a good night's sleep, as NFKB is also involved in our circadian rhythm. One of the authors of a 2018 study from Northwestern University, Dr Hee-Kyung Hong, explains, "We don't know the reasons, but this interaction between the inflammation and clocks is not only relevant to understanding how inflammation affects the brain and sleep-wake cycle but also how immune or fat cells work."
Therefore stress and poor diet, two common causes of inflammation, may be causing or contributing to poor sleep. And one of the worst modern dietary habits is excessive sugar.
Higher Energy and Awareness
Sugar gives you energy. It makes your blood sugar levels rise, your pancreas releases insulin, and your muscles take the energy into their cells. It also wakes the brain up, making you more aware. Consuming sugar, especially at night, creates the opposite effect your body needs to go to sleep.
According to Dr Anup Mulakaluri, every molecule of sugar also uses 54 molecules of magnesium, which is necessary for promoting deep sleep, relaxing muscles, aiding in bowel movements, and supporting blood sugar regulation. It's difficult to get enough magnesium in your diet, and unsurprisingly, magnesium is a popular sleep supplement.
Imbalance in the Gut
Dr Mulakaluri also explains that consuming too much sugar can allow for some strains of bacteria (especially yeasts) to grow too quickly and dominate the delicate balance in our gut. The gut has more recently been referred to as our "second brain," which is the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from your esophagus to your rectum. It's responsible for digestion and elimination, but it also communicates with the brain, triggering mood changes. This is because 95% of the body's serotonin is in the gut. Serotonin affects every part of the body and is considered a mood stabilizer. It has a role in sleep, digestion, eating, and reduces depression and anxiety, as well as its many other functions.
Low serotonin levels are linked to depression, and the relationship is still unclear. Insomnia may cause depression, and depression may cause insomnia. In some people with insomnia, their depression started before insomnia, and for others, it started after. According to Harvard Health Publishing, 65% to 90% of adults and 90% of children with depression have insomnia.
Imbalance in gut bacteria may also be linked to anxiety, which has a similar relationship to insomnia as depression, though it's not as common. Insomnia occurs in more than 50% of adults with generalized anxiety disorder, but also occurs in other disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and phobias. Harvard Health states that sleep problems precede anxiety disorders 27% of the time, and depression 69% of the time.
Insomnia is highly prevalent among people with bipolar disorder, with one study finding that 100% of their subjects experienced insomnia, while another study reported that 78% experienced hypersomnia. Some researchers pointed out that insomnia often precedes an episode of bipolar depression, and may trigger it.
According to Stephanie A. Flowers at the University of Illinois Department of Pharmacy Practice, "The relationship between gut microbiota and the brain has gained attention in mental health due to the mounting evidence supporting the association of gut bacteria with mood and behavior. Patients with bipolar disorder exhibit an increased frequency of gastrointestinal illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease, which mechanistically has been linked to microbial community function."
25% to 50% of children with ADHD have sleep issues, including taking a long time to fall asleep, frequent sleep arousals, and shorter sleep periods. Geneticist Dr. Aaron Stevens led a study that claims that there's growing evidence that gut bacteria could have a role in the development of ADHD and autism, as well as depression. A large international study found higher levels of bifidobatcerium in children with ADHD compared to children who didn't have ADHD.
How Lack of Sleep Increases Cravings
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition gave 42 students and staff of King's College London a plan to improve their sleep. Researchers found that participants ate less sugar, without being encouraged to eat less.
One reason why is because lack of sleep causes changes in hormones. It reduces leptin, the hormone that makes you feel satisfied while eating, and increases ghrelin, the hormone that increases the feeling that you need to keep eating. Research from Stanford University concluded that lack of sleep increases appetite, though it wasn't necessarily for sugar.
Researchers from Clemson University have suggested that lack of sleep does two things. One, it reduces activity in the parts of the brain that control planning and thinking, which could reduce self-control; and two, it reduces the amount of energy needed to exercise self-control. Tired people are more likely to go with their impulse to do what feels good in the moment, rather than do what's best in the long term. This not only applies to increased sugar consumption but other areas of life, even inappropriate and unethical behavior at work. Most people can relate to being more irritable, and more likely to engage in negative behaviors when tired.
It's also no surprise that tired people are more likely to reach for sugar (as well as caffeine) for a temporary energy boost.
Natural vs. Added Sugar
There are 17 different types of sugar that are commonly found in food products, but there is an important distinction between sugar versus added sugar. Added sugar is any sugar that is added during the cooking or preparation of food. According to Vasanti Malik, ScD, consuming natural sugars in foods such as fruit is not linked to negative health effects, since the amount of sugar tends to be modest and is "packaged" with fiber, water, and other nutrients.
This would also apply to fruit juice versus eating the whole fruit. Most people would have a hard time eating 10 apples in one sitting. But it's not difficult to drink the juice of 10 apples, because the fiber has been removed. The fiber prevents you from eating too much and slows the release of sugar into your bloodstream, which prevents insulin spikes.
Common Sugar Labels
Heart.org lists some of the common terms you will see on processed foods:
- Sugar-Free – less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving
- Reduced Sugar or Less Sugar – at least 25% less sugar per serving compared to a standard serving size of the traditional variety
- No Added Sugars or Without Added Sugars – no sugars or sugar-containing ingredients such as juice or dry fruit is added during processing
- Low Sugar – not defined or allowed as a claim on food labels
It's not easy to figure out if the sugar in the product is natural or added. If the product doesn't contain fruit or dairy, then all the sugar is added sugar.
Dried Fruit vs. Fruit
Dried fruit is full of nutrition, and different dried fruits have different benefits, but if you're watching your sugar, dried fruit is dangerous. This is for the same reason as why fruit juice has more sugar than eating the fruit; when you juice, you remove the fiber, which stops you from eating too much. When you dry fruit, you remove the water, which concentrates the sugar, allowing you to eat more than if you ate the fruit in its normal state. The amounts listed below are for dried fruit without a sugar coating:
|Dried Fruit||Amount of Sugar/Cup|
|Dates, deglet noor||93 g|
|Dried Cranberries||71.5 g|
|Dried Figs||71.4 g|
|Dried Apricots||69 g|
|Dried Apple||49.2 g|
Though the sugar content can be high, there are many health benefits to dried fruit:
- low to medium glycemic index, and a low insulin index
- has up to 3.5 times the fiber, minerals, and vitamins
- the polyphenol antioxidants improve blood flow, benefits the digestive system, decreases oxidative stress, and decreases the risk of many diseases
- low fat, sodium, and cholesterol
- increases hemoglobin content of the blood and help to form new blood cells
- lowers cholesterol
- reduces constipation
- prevents some types of cancer
- prevents hair loss
- slows the aging process
- controls blood pressure, diabetes, and weight
Sugar and Caffeine
Processed foods high in sugar sometimes have caffeine as well. Caffeine is a stimulant that can also prevent restful sleep, and shouldn't be ingested in the latter part of the day. Some people are more sensitive to it and need to keep their consumption very low or avoid it completely to prevent sleep issues.
Many of these foods combine coffee with chocolate. Here are some foods and drinks that often combine caffeine and sugar:
- energy drinks
- pudding (especially chocolate)
- some breakfast cereals (such as Cocoa Pebbles)
- Clif bars: vanilla almond latte, caramel macchiato, and dark chocolate mocha
- Kashi's Dark Mocha Almond granola bar
- hot cocoa
- iced tea
- some brands of kombucha
- yogurts that add coffee, such as Chobani's coffee & cream
- coffee-flavored ice cream
- PMS medications
- headache remedies
Is Sugar Addictive?
Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, explains that "Sugar is a deep, ancient craving." He explains that humans evolved surviving on sugar-rich fruit, and they evolved to like riper fruit which contains more sugar than unripe fruit because it gave more energy. It also helps store fat, which was an important store of energy in times that food wasn't readily available. Those who ate sugar were more likely to pass on their genes.
Lieberman wrote, "For millions of years, our cravings and digestive systems were exquisitely balanced because sugar was rare. Apart from honey, most of the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate were no sweeter than a carrot. The invention of farming made starchy foods more abundant, but it wasn’t until very recently that technology made pure sugar bountiful."
Now we aren't limited to the fruit that we find by scavenging. We aren't even limited to the fruit that we can farm, which would reduce the amount that we can eat because of the fiber and water in the whole fruit. We have sugar added to so many of the items that we consume, including items that you wouldn't expect to have sugar, such as ketchup and salad dressing.
The University of California at San Francisco's Sugar Science explains that scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have found similarities in the brains of obese people and those addicted to cocaine.
Eating sugar releases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain associated with motivation, novelty, and reward. Dr. Melanie Greenberg explains that sugar can lead to changes in dopamine receptors, leading to tolerance. A person may develop a decreased ability to get pleasure from other substances and experiences, making them more dependent on sugar for pleasure and reward.
Sugar consumption also leads to the release of opioids in the brain that creates a rush of pleasure that's similar to the rush from injecting heroin. It's not as intense, but it's noteworthy that heroin addicts show increased cravings for sweets when they stop taking heroin. This is called cross-tolerance, where someone may become addicted to a different substance from their original addiction because the same brain chemistry is involved.
A 2002 study found that when rats were given excessive sugar and then forced into withdrawal, the rats experienced physical symptoms of withdrawal including tremors, head shakes, and teeth chattering.
How to Eat Less Sugar
There are a lot of steps that you can take to reduce the amount of sugar you consume besides willpower.
Getting more restful sleep is one of the most powerful ways that you can reduce your cravings for sweets. A study from Northwestern University showed that people who under-sleep are more likely to crave foods that are unhealthy, especially foods high in sugar. If you have issues sleeping, learn the basics of good sleep hygiene so you can get to sleep faster, stay asleep, and wake up feeling refreshed.
Replace High-Sugar Foods with Fruit
When you eat fruit, you're eating the fiber, water, as well as other nutrients in the fruit, making it harder to get larger amounts of sugar because you feel full. Dr David Ludwig, New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital, says that sugar in fruit isn't bad for your health, no matter how much you eat.
Eat More Protein
According to a study published in Obesity, increasing protein intake to at least 25% of total calorie intake in overweight males significantly reduced their food cravings.
Be careful with protein bars though, as many have high amounts of sugar. If you're male and your protein bar has 25 g of sugar, you are only 13 g away from your suggested daily limit from the American Heart Association, and that's only from one snack!
Be Careful with Breakfast
Because you're been sleeping for the last 8 or so hours, and haven't eaten, you break your fast with breakfast, which for many people means a lot of sugar. The sugar brings their blood sugar up quickly and combined with a morning coffee, makes them feel awake. And you might not realize how much sugar is in a breakfast that you assume is healthy. It could be helpful to adopt some of the habits of bodybuilders, who are probably the best and most experienced at controlling their weight and how they look. Bodybuilders often eat the same foods most of the time. So instead of eating a sugar-filled cereal, pancakes, or a muffin, plus a lot of orange juice, eat a healthy protein such as eggs.
Buy or Make Healthy Snacks
You may find that pistachios, cashews, almonds, or fruit keep you from going after sugary foods when you want a snack. There are many no-bake snacks that are pretty easy to create that have no added sugars, just fruit.
Eat Before You Leave Your House
The saying in personal development is, "Not planning ahead is planning to fail." If you eat before you leave, you're less likely to buy fast food or a snack, which is more likely to have more sugar than the food that you prepare. And if you're going food shopping, you may notice that you buy healthier food when you shop while not hungry.
Snacking is one of the ways that people consume a lot of sugar. If you eat several meals throughout the day and eat until you're satisfied, you're less likely to grab a sugary snack.
A 2015 study showed that a brisk, 15-minute walk can reduce chocolate cravings in overweight people.
Eat Less Processed Foods
Many health experts say that when you go to a grocery store you should spend most of your time around the edges of the store because this is where the least processed foods are.
Think of how processed a food is as how many steps away from its natural form it is. If you're not sure how processed a food is, processed foods come in boxes, cans, and packages. They also have a long list of ingredients. These ingredients often have some type of added sugar. Here's a list of many of the different types of sugar:
- agave nectar
- agave syrup
- barley malt
- beet sugar
- brown rice solids
- brown sugar
- buttered syrup
- cane juice
- cane sugar
- carob syrup
- confectioners’ sugar
- corn sugar
- corn sweetener
- corn syrup
- corn syrup solids
- date sugar
- evaporated cane juice
- fruit juice
- fruit juice concentrate
- glucose solids
- golden sugar
- golden syrup
- grape juice concentrate
- grape sugar
- high-fructose corn syrup
- invert sugar
- maple syrup
- raw sugar
- refiners’ syrup
- sorghum syrup
- turbinado sugar
Cut Back on Sugary Drinks
There are many options to replace sodas and other sugar-filled drinks with, such as:
- water with freshly-squeezed lemon or lime
- water with cut fruit (such as cucumber; yes cucumber is a fruit)
- tea (be careful with caffeine though if you're trying to improve your sleep)
Don't Drink Diet Soda
According to the Cleveland Clinic, diet soda is associated with weight gain, may cause insulin confusion, and may stimulate the part of your brain associated with wanting more fat and sugar. Not to mention all of the dangers of aspartame, a common ingredient in diet soda.
Manufacturers will add sugar to products that you wouldn't expect to be high in sugar, such as salad dressing and ketchup because consumers like the taste more and are more likely to get addicted to their products.
Gary Taubes, author of What If It's All Been A Big Fat Lie? explains, "...until about 1980, the obesity rates in this country are 12% to 14%. And then somewhere in that period between the late '70s and late '80s, they shoot up to 22-25%. That's known as the obesity epidemic... From my fat research, I already knew that there were two major changes in the country during that period. One was, high-fructose corn syrup came in as sort of the primary caloric sweetener in America...The other theory was that we started pushing the low-fat diets during this period. Starting in 1977, the government started telling all Americans to eat less fat, and starting in the mid-'80s, we started producing these low-fat products that in effect replaced the fat in the yogurt or the cookies or the whatever with carbohydrates. We went from being a country that ate about 40% of their calories in fat and 45% carbohydrates, to 34% fat and that much more carbohydrates."
Make Your Own Salad Dressing
Salad dressing often has sugar, lots of calories, and many other ingredients that aren't healthy. Experiment with making your own. Freshly-squeezed lemon or lime, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and herbs are common ingredients to experiment with.
Eat Full-Fat Foods
According to researchers at Stanford University, many low-fat foods have extra sugar. It's likely that manufacturers add extra sugar to help with the taste. Don't think that eating fat makes you fat, good fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet. If you're concerned about your weight, adding good fat will make you feel satisfied and less likely to overeat foods, which will keep your overall calorie count in a better range for not gaining weight or losing weight. Sources of good fat include avocados, cheese, nuts, seeds, eggs, full-fat yogurt (pay attention to how much added sugar is on the label), and fatty fish.
Be Careful with Baking
Many baked goods have a lot of added sugars. But if you do your own baking, use a sugar substitute such as swerve, which is better for baking than other natural sugar substitutes. Or experiment with no-bake sweets that use fruit, nuts, and other unprocessed ingredients.
Use the Best Sugar Substitutes
- Monk fruit sweetener, also known as monk fruit extract, swingle fruit (siraitia grosvenorii), or lo han guo, is amazing. It's 150-200 times sweeter than sugar but doesn't impact blood sugar levels. It's an antioxidant, and it has zero calories. It's derived from a fruit called "Buddha fruit" from China and was approved by the FDA as a sweetener in 2010. It's safe for kids, pregnant women, and breastfeeding women. Though it's harder to find than other sugar substitutes, it's available in granule, liquid, and powder. The only drawback is that the taste is a little different than normal sugar. It hasn't been studied extensively, but it has been used safely in Southeast Asia for centuries.
- Stevia comes from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, and is another great sugar substitute, though it has a unique taste. Studies have found that it may lower high blood pressure in people with hypertension, as well as in diabetics, but may have no effect on people with normal or only slightly higher blood pressure. It's also been found to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce LDL-cholesterol, and reduce plaque in the arteries. The FDA considers high-purity steviol glycosides, an extract of stevia, safe, while it hasn't approved stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts for use in food. Speak to your doctor as stevia may interact with several different types of drugs, including anti-fungals, anti-inflammatories, antimicrobials, anti-cancer drugs, anti-virals, appetite suppressants, calcium channel blockers, cholesterol-lowering drugs, drugs that increase urination, fertility agents, and other medications.
- Xylitol is a sugar alcohol with 2.4 calories per g. It doesn't raise blood sugar or insulin levels, and may reduce cavities and be good for your gums (hence why it's included in some toothpaste). It may improve bone density and help prevent osteoporosis. It is, however, highly toxic to dogs.
- Swerve has no calories, is non-GMO (genetically modified organism), has zero carbs, kosher, and is non-glycemic, so it doesn't raise your blood sugar or insulin levels. It also tastes like sugar and works very well for baking as it bakes similar to sugar (unlike some other natural sweeteners). For some people though, one of the ingredients in Swerve (sugar alcohol named erythritol) may cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. It's not a good option for people with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). For most people, Swerve shouldn't cause any issues, especially if it's not eaten in high amounts.
- Yacon syrup is from a plant that grows in South America. It has one-third the calories of sugar, and it decreases ghrelin (the hormone that makes you hungry). It also feeds your good gut bacteria and is generally considered safe, as long as not consumed in large amounts. The drawback to yacon syrup is that you can't bake or cook with it because the high temperatures break down its chemical structure.
Other "OK" Sugar Substitutes
- Molasses has nutrients that may contribute to heart and bone health (due to its potassium and calcium content), and it may help regulate blood sugar levels. It also has antioxidants, though it's still high in sugar.
- Honey has small amounts of vitamins and minerals and is high in antioxidants, which are known to reduce your risk of several diseases. It also contains phytonutrients, enzymes, and pollen, and has been shown to reduce inflammation. It also seems to be less harmful on blood sugar levels than regular sugar. Honey does have more calories than sugar though, with one tablespoon having 68 calories, whereas one tablespoon of granulated sugar has 49 calories. Honey is easier to digest than sugar, has a lower glycemic index, but according to the University of Arizona Department of Nutritional Sciences, it isn't safe for children under the age of 12 months because honey has bacteria in it that an infant's gastrointestinal tract can't combat.
- Coconut sugar has trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, and inulin, a prebiotic (feeds your good gut bacteria) plant fiber that's good for your digestion. Coconut sugar is 70% to 80% sucrose, which is what's found in regular table sugar. So it has a few advantages over table sugar, but there isn't a large difference.
- Maple syrup has slightly fewer calories than regular sugar, but it has trace minerals, vitamins, and at least 24 antioxidants. It's high in sugar, though still better than table sugar, so it won't raise your blood sugar levels as much as regular sugar.
Types of Sugar to Avoid
- Agave is one of the sugars that people assume is better because it comes from the agave plant. It does contain some antioxidants and does have some anti-inflammatory benefits, but it has more calories than regular sugar and more fructose than high fructose corn syrup! Doctors used to believe that moderate amounts of fructose weren't bad, but they have changed their minds. The fructose is converted to fat faster than glucose, and fructose can only be broken down by the liver. When the liver metabolizes fructose, it forms uric acid and free radicals, which causes cell damage and inflammation. Fructose consumption also creates triglycerides, which leads to cardiovascular disease.
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) isn't something that consumers usually add to their food, but it's extremely common in packaged goods. Like agave, it's high in fructose, which is linked to an increase in body weight, blood pressure, inflammatory markers, triglyceride levels, visceral fat, and liver fat.
- Refined sugar, also known as white sugar, or table sugar, is unfortunately very prevalent. It has a lot of calories, it's addictive, and because it's highly processed, it has no nutrition or any other benefit, such as the enzymes in honey.
- Aspartame has been under attack recently in part due to research that concluded that it is associated with “increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular events." Another study from North Dakota found that it increases irritability and depression. Aspartame is considered by many to be dangerous.
Track Your Sugar Intake
If you're serious about dropping your sugar intake, download a sugar-consumption tracking app on your phone. This could be particularly effective if you're a competitive person. Some apps are designed for diabetics, others for people following the paleo diet, and some are just for general health. Many apps are free and may include the option to scan the barcode or take a picture of what you're going to eat, and it will log the amount of sugar you're consuming. You may want to try out a few different apps such as Fooducate (available for iPhone and android).