Guest blog by Dr. Kathryn Woodall, DC
While not all of us are dropped by helicopter into remote places where grizzly bears think we look like tasty treats, and there’s no cell phone reception to get us out in an emergency (…like when bad boots rub your heels raw, the sores get infected, and the infection spreads—don’t ask Ryan about it or he’ll show you pictures!), physical or emotional stress can take its toll on the best of us. Sometimes that toll is our ability to get a full night’s rest.
A few years ago after one of his travel magazine expeditions, Ryan told me he was waking up in the middle of the night most nights and couldn’t go back to sleep. I suggested he eat a small handful of almonds when he woke to see if it would help. It did.
Typically, waking without being able to go back to sleep is an indicator of blood sugar instability. It happens when sugar drops too low. Ryan eats a nutrient dense diet and exercises regularly, so you might be wondering how a guy like him could have temporary blood sugar issues. The answer is physical stress.
What’s stress got to do with blood sugar? You’ve probably heard that your adrenal glands handle stress, but they actually do a lot more. Your adrenals:
- adjust your blood pressure so you don’t get dizzy when you stand up
- help produce some sex hormones
- are responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response, as well as for dealing with other stressors like allergies, infections, diets that are high in sugar, and emotional or physical trauma
- play a role in your sleep/wake cycles
- help you repair/heal
- help keep your blood sugar levels relatively even between meals
- If your adrenals get overly occupied with any one of their tasks, the other functions they perform will sometimes pay the price.
If you’re waking in the middle of the night and unable to go back to sleep, there’s a good chance that your blood sugar is dropping too low during the night. Most often this happens between 2-4 a.m. The reason you can go back to sleep right before the alarm goes off is that cortisol increases in the morning to wake you up, but it also allows your sugar levels to increase.
The first thing to check is that your diet is nutrient dense without an excess of sugary foods, and that you’re getting regular exercise. If your diet needs work, you aren’t exercising, or you’re doing a lot of endurance exercise, use the snack described below to help you get back to sleep, but work on changing your diet and exercise habits.
If your diet and exercise are both balanced, then some other stress is the most likely culprit.
Keeping a small protein/fat snack by your bed to eat when you wake during the night can help you get back to sleep. Example: 6-12 almonds, 2-3 tablespoons of sunflower seeds, etc. It’s best if you don’t have to turn on a bright light to eat your snack, because light decreases the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
While a snack is likely to solve your immediate inability to go back to sleep, waking in the middle of the night is just a symptom of other less obvious stress-related issues. You can get rid of the symptom by eating a snack — and you want to because low blood sugar is a stressor to your body all by itself! — but you also want to figure out and deal with whatever caused the stress in the first place.
Kathryn Woodall ran a private health care practice for 15 years. Dr. Kathryn’s blog caters to allergy-friendly diets, and provides information on healthy eating, recipes, and exercise.