Treating Insomnia May Help Reduce Sugar Intake

A new study out of UC San Francisco looking at over 18,000 American adults has found that those who get five or fewer hours of sleep each night are more likely to take in sugary caffeinated drinks, like energy drinks and soda.

It is as yet unclear if sugar drinks lead to insomnia and  sleep deprivation or if lack of sleep leads to a constant search for sugary caffeinated drinks to stay awake.  The authors note that previous studies have indicated both may be true.

Dr. Aric A. Prather, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of this study, notes that there is a lot of feedback regarding the cyclical link between sugar intake and sleep loss, making either one hard to manage because of its dependency on the other.  He notes that it is well known that high sugar intake is linked to metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity, but this data suggests that improving sleep deprivation could help break the habit of high sugar drink intake and reduce the risk of metabolic disease.

This study will be published in December’s issue of Sleep Health, but is available online starting 11/09/2016.

A good amount of medical literature has positively linked metabolic syndrome – a group of conditions like high body fat and increased blood sugar levels – with increased intake of sugary beverages.  Metabolic syndrome, as most know, leads to type 2 diabetes and obesity.  Furthermore, sleep deprivation is linked to high risk of metabolic diseases.  In recent studies, these two factors have been positively linked in school-aged children, indicating that children who were getting fewer hours of sleep were more likely to drink sugary or caffeinated drinks during the day.

Dr. Prather and colleagues looked at the results in the National Health and Nutrition Survey given to 18,779 people between the years 2005 and 2012.  This survey was an ongoing review of health status and dietary habits and was administered by the National Center for Health Statistics.  It reviewed the amount of sleep the participants got on a weekly basis, as well as total consumption of any number of drinks, including both non-caffeinated and caffeinated beverages.  The analysis of this study was an attempt to determine if the results were the norm and general pattern in the American adult population.

The researchers controlled for a number of demographic, social, and health factors that would impact the intake of sugary beverages and the amount of sleep one gets.  However, researchers still found that people who slept five or fewer hours each night had 21% more intake of sugary beverages than those who got seven to eight hours of sleep each night.  Those who reported six hours each night consumed 11% more caffeinated and sugary beverages than those who got more sleep.  On the other side of the coin, however, there was no link between juice, tea, and diet drink consumption and sleep duration.

It is notable that past research indicates a strong link between sleep deprivation and increased hunger, especially for unhealthy junk foods.

Prather notes that chronically short sleepers may be seeking out caffeinated sugar beverages to help improve their daytime alertness and prevent sleepiness; however, they are not entirely clear if drinking so many of those beverages is what is causing the short sleep or if it is the short sleep that is driving the intake.  Sadly, this current study can only give a logical hypothesis rather than conclusive evidence of either side.

Sleep duration should also be figured into the analysis, and the duration figures in this study were based on self reports, which may not be as accurate as they would be if they were done in a sleep center.  Additional studies in the future will use more objective measures of sleep like sleep devices and EEG recordings.  There needs to be a long-term prospective study plan to better understand the link and cause-and-effect properties between sleep deprivation and sugary-caffeinated beverage intake.

Whatever the relationship between sleep and sugar, the study suggests a new way to address the sugar consumption problem that has swept the culture.

There are obvious negative metabolic responses to short sleep and high sugar intake, Dr. Prather notes, and given the probable two-way connection between the two components, increasing sleep duration and improving sleep quality could go a long way to improving overall health and well-being.


Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.



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