Awake Again at 3 AM
I went from 5 hours of bad sleep to sleeping through the night. Blood sugar is the key.
If you are reading this, you are probably over 50 and female. You are awake, don’t want to be, and have decided to read because falling back to sleep isn’t happening.
Or, you may be someone who has one of the following:
· An autoimmune disease
· A great deal of stress
· A chronic sleep problem
I won’t claim to solve it all for you now, but if you’ve tried everything else — dark bedroom, no computer an hour or two before bedtime, magnesium baths, etc — your issue may be related to wonky blood sugar.
I am not a sleep guru but I’ve gone from 4 or 5 hours of poor sleep to 7 or 8 of decent sleep.
It hasn’t been easy. Maybe I can save you some time and effort.
My brief story
I am 54, female, have Hashimoto’s disease, and used to suffer from anxiety and chronic (plus seasonal) depression.
When I hit “change of life” I was hobbled by poor sleep. I lost the ability to concentrate, relied on caffeine daily, and had to quit a stressful job.
I read up on “sleep hygiene” advice (you know the kind, just google “can’t sleep 3am”). I darkened my room, woke up on a schedule, avoided caffeine late in the day and alcohol completely, and de-stressed.
I even went back to a vegan diet!
My sincerest efforts added to my stress since I would lie awake and ask, “What am I doing wrong?”
I was less worried about short-term inconvenience but the long-term effects of sleep-deprivation — dementia and earlier death — loomed.
Since then, I’ve gathered a pile of evidence about middle-of-the-night awakenings. I addressed my blood sugar.
The chemical explanation
Western medicine loves its biochemistry. We think of ourselves as chemical factories. The western model neatly explains poor sleep — specifically, the kind that wakes you up at 3 am — as a blood sugar problem.
To grasp why blood sugar matters, it’s important to understand how glucose and glycogen work.
Glucose is blood sugar. If it’s stable, you feel well. If it’s too low or too high, you suffer from moodiness, fatigue, irritability, and lack of endurance — to name a few. Healthy people can go for 7 hours or more without eating, and they don’t suffer.
People who have diabetes or hypoglycemia (for example) may need to eat as often as every 2 hours to keep blood sugar from fluctuating.
Glycogen are compact packages of blood sugar stored in the liver. When we sleep, the liver releases glycogen into the blood where it becomes glucose.
If you are waking up in the middle of the night, you have a glucose problem during the day and a glycogen problem at night. Either you don’t store enough glycogen or the liver doesn’t release it properly.
What’s waking you up is, in short — hunger. It feels like stress and worry but it’s your body and brain saying, “I don’t want to starve.”
You are NOT waking up because you have a lot on your mind, or have to pee — your body is waking you up because it’s ravenous!
If you want to destabilize your blood sugar, a good plan would be: expose yourself to stress, exercise intensely, skip meals and/or eat tons of sugar, and hyperventilate.
The cornerstones of stable blood sugar are:
— lower stress
— exercise gently to moderately
— eat frequent, balanced meals
— breathe correctly
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but fixing sleep problems is not a matter of adjusting your “sleep hygiene” if you are waking up in the middle of the night (especially if you are menopausal, have blood sugar problems and/or have an autoimmune disease).
Stress comes in many forms: worry about money, sudden danger, a bad boss, physical illness, etc.
All stress creates a feedback loop. When you feel stressed, you may reach for foods that create blood sugar highs and lows, like M&Ms, because they will solve your immediate problem. Then you feel bad for breaking your diet.
The sugar rush causes fatigue, which leads to overeating at dinner. You go to bed later because you are too full — and wake up at 3am.
One of the most paradoxical, and frustrating, parts of waking up at 3am, is the exercise dilemma. I routinely find that I have a threshold of about 8,000 steps. If I go over this, I am more likely to wake up when I don’t want to — in the middle of the night.
It’s best to stick with walking. Avoid intense aerobics, like hour long dance classes or HIIT 4x a week.
Refined sugars and alcohol wreak havoc on blood sugar.
Consuming caffeine early in the day destabilizes blood sugar all day long. Let me repeat: early morning coffee can cause blood glucose to fluctuate all day.
If you have food sensitivities (e.g. gluten, dairy), routinely overeat, and/or skip meals — the predictable result is poor blood sugar control.
Instead of focusing on giving up foods you love, add foods that boost your immune system and overall health. Like momma said, eat your vegetables. Then eat them in 5 small meals a day, until you’ve improved your sleep quality.
Most of us hyperventilate, which ups anxiety levels.
Mouth breathing, poor posture, and chronic stress all contribute to poor breathing. Since oxygen is the most important nutrient, and we often starve ourselves of it — we eat more (and more sugar) to compensate.
Walking an impossible tightrope
Fixing the blood sugar problem can be crazy-making, so it’s important to be kind to yourself. Rome was not built in a day, and sleep solutions don’t happen overnight!
Many of us find dietary changes, for example, too difficult because of work schedules, finances, and/or family obligations. If that is you, start somewhere else.
It’s helpful to take the easiest steps first.
Where to start improving your blood sugar
I’ve listed these in order of easiest to hardest, lowest cost to most expensive…but the order is debatable.
1/ Breathe correctly
Learn to breathe 100% through your nose. In the words of the master of “breathing less,” Dr. KP Buteyko, “Breathe through your mouth as often as you eat through your nose.”
If you believe you already breathe through your nose 100%, check yourself when:
· You work out — do you gasp when you are jogging?
· You sleep — do you snore? Do you awaken with a dry mouth?
· You talk — do you suck air in between sentences?
· You eat — are you mouth breathing between bites?
It takes time and effort, but establishing the habit of 100% nasal breathing will reduce stress, improve eating habits, and lead to better sleep. The Breathing Center has many free resources, and there is a bestselling book called Breath that is an excellent primer.
2/ Exercise less
This topic is fraught with problems. It’s good to be outside, great to move, and ideal to avoid sitting. So do all those things, but do not overdo.
I walk 35 minutes a day and do 15 minutes of yoga every morning. If I add anything to that — yard work, a long dog walk, a big shopping trip — it can put me over my limit.
For many people, moderating exercise can lead to better sleep within a few days.
3/ Lower stress levels
Add a progressive relaxation session to your day. Even 10 minutes daily can bring benefits, and there are plenty of apps out there to help you.
If you are exposed to chronic stress (an abusive relationship, a bad boss, etc.) consider how to change your situation. Is it worth your health to continue in the relationship or job?
When you awaken at 3 am, accept that is happening and do not blame yourself. Spend some time meditating or relaxing rather than reaching for a bright screen.
4/ Eat frequently and drop sugar
Eat small meals, frequently. Balance fat, carbohydrate, and protein at every meal.
Eliminate refined sugars.
Alcohol is one of the worst substances you can consume if you are waking up at night (or not falling asleep well). It does your liver no favors, if you recall where glycogen lives.
Caffeine is a problem but quitting cold turkey will make you miserable for a week (for some people, withdrawal lasts for months), so it’s best to slowly reduce your caffeine intake.
Eat whole foods and up your intake of vegetables.
Eliminate industrial (seed) oils. Stick with butter, ghee, and olive oil. Coconut oil is usually fine as well.
I am not a big fan of supplements, but If you have trouble adding protein to your diet, use collagen powder in your coffee, tea, or soups.
A few herbs and spices are helpful with blood sugar control, among them: Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, and cinnamon (get good quality Ceylon).
Drink two large glasses of high quality (filtered or spring) water every morning. It is especially important to hydrate in the morning because you lose fluid as you sleep.
An easy morning exercise routine can be found in the Five Tibetan Rites. They are simple to learn and quick to practice. Legend has it they make you younger!
It’s trendy — but cold showers work. Start warm and spend the last minute in the cold until your breathing normalizes.
Before bed, mix 3oz of orange juice with ¼ tsp of salt, and place the glass by your bed. When you awaken, sip this concoction. It will help your body relax.