Is Sugar Keeping You Up at Night?

Is Sugar Keeping You Up at Night?

Alarm clock on night table showing 3 a.m.
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If you find your day is full of soda, energy drinks, and sugary lattes, it might be time to be more thoughtful about your beverage habits. According to a recent study from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, those who get five or less hours of sleep each night also tend to consume drinks full of caffeine and sugar each day.

The scientists nabbed data taken from the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES) between 2005 to 2012, looking into the beverage consumption and sleep routines of more than 18,000 participants. They measured how frequently men and women tipped back both caffeinated and non-caffeinated sugar-sweetened drinks, fruit juices, beverages with artificial sweeteners, coffee, tea, and water.

After controlling for socioeconomic and health factors that might impact the results, researchers found that men and women who fell under that five-hours-per-night sleep benchmark consumed 21 percent more of the caffeinated and sugary beverages, compared to those who got a healthy seven to eight hours of sleep a night. And those who got just six hours of sleep downed 11 percent more of the sugar-filled and caffeinated drinks.

Study researcher Aric Prather, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Weill Institute for Neurosciences at UC, San Francisco, says that, interestingly, caffeinated drinks without sugar were not consumed at higher rates among shorter sleepers. “This means that it seems to be something about the combination of sugar and caffeine that is related to sleep,” he explains, saying these results are consistent with the bidirectional link between sugar-sweetened drinks and sleep.

According to Prather, there may be a feedback loop of sorts. “On one hand, it is well known that caffeine, and perhaps sugar, consumed close to bedtime can disrupt and shorten sleep,” he says. “On the other hand, sleepy people crave sugar and routinely use caffeine to get through the day. Lack of sleep has been shown to alter appetite and reward pathways in the brain.”

While sleep deprived, it’s common to crave high-fat, sugary foods—and noshing on cakes and pastries, for instance, “helps dampen the stress response, which is also upregulated during periods of sleep debt,” Prather explains. “Consequently, the consumption of these types of foods, including sugar-sweetened beverages, is reinforcing how hard it is to remove these items from one’s diet.”

And you want most those items out of your eating and drinking routine. There is quite a bit of “intriguing science going on around the toxic effects of excess sugar consumption,” says Prather. “This includes excess fat, changes in the metabolic processes responsible for type-2 diabetes and non-alcohol related fatty liver disease.” Sleep deprivation can impact metabolism, too. “Studies demonstrate that lack of sleep can significantly alter glucose tolerance, immune function, and inflammation, that over the long term can lead to chronic disease,” Prather says. “Combining short sleep with excess sugar consumption is certainly a recipe for poor health outcomes.”

So, what do you do? First, remember that lack of sleep and sugar consumption seem likely to impact each other in a sort of feedback loop. If you consume a lot of sugary, caffeinated drinks, you’re more likely to get less sleep or poor-quality sleep; if you’re sleep deprived, you may reach for more sugary, caffeinated drinks (and unhealthy foods).

Try to be more conscious of your drink choices. Water is always great, and plain coffee and tea before midafternoon. (Prather suggests checking out Harvard’s healthy beverage guidelines.) By nixing the jolts of that sugar-caffeine combination, you may find it easier to get seven to eight hours of sleep at night—and Prather suggests “these sleep improvements may make it easier to change your diet.”

A little mindfulness can go a long way for feeling better each day… and long-term. How great is that?


  1. Last night, after tea, I indulged in 4 Macarons. I knew I shouldn’t as last time I had any, I didn’t sleep for hours. I convinced myself it was just a coincidence but forward to 5am this morning and I’m still trying to get to sleep. I normally don’t have sugar in anything and normally sleep 7-8 hours every night with no problems dropping off. Ok that was an excessive sugar intake but I agree with Colin that perhaps the subject is more complex than implied. I can only go on my own experience.

  2. I have found that eating a piece of cream pie before bedtime, LETS ME SLEEP ALL NIGHT……..
    I often woke during the night……….now I sleep soundly!!

  3. I usually eat a lot of sweets, and recently followed my doctor’s advice to stop eating sugar cold turkey and expect that the cravings would go away after about 2 weeks. I did that, and I noticed that I was getting tired a lot earlier than I usually do–which for me is a good thing. I have always been a total night owl, and now I think it is because of my sugar intake. The same thing happens with my husband. I take medicine to help me fall asleep at night, and was still on this medicine while being off sugar (which I have sadly started to eat again), but I think I will try a non-sugar diet again and then try going to sleep without the meds!