by Tim Mount, CN, CCMH
I walk down the old, wood paneled hallway towards the musty garage. On the right I notice a creaky door and step inside the eerie closet. This was the same room that my sister was murdered in! A wave of fear washes over me as I realize I need to run. NOW! RUNNN!!!
It’s too late, they’ve found me. With a deafening crack the walls are pushed in. I’m squeezed from all sides as if I’m being trapped alive in a coffin. I push – with all my might and fury – I push and kick to free myself from the same fate that befell my sister. It’s useless. Now my daughter will grow up without her father, just like my niece has suffered without her mother.
My head pops up off of the pillow. My heart is racing, the terror is overwhelming.
“Calm down Tim, it was just a nightmare.”
Not again! This has been happening too much lately.
There is no way to talk myself down. I know, I’ve tried everything before. The adrenaline coursing through my veins has put my physiology on high alert. I just need to let it run its course and hope to get back to sleep before the alarm goes off in a couple hours. I dread the lethargy awaiting me in the coming work day.
We’ve all been there, right? The sleeplessness before going to bed while our mind races from topic to topic. The terrible nightmare that interrupts our slumber. The tossing and turning that turns a restful night’s sleep into a frustrating exercise in futility.
We’re all slaves to our bodies – or so we assume. Is there anything we can do besides taking poisons like Ambien? (Which landed a close friend of mine in the hospital for weeks because of its HORRIBLE side effects.)
I’ll save the suspense – Yes! Absolutely! But to understand my simple recommendations we need to look at the processes going on in the body that cause these symptoms. Bear with me, this is important.
While it isn’t always the case, often the issue is related to blood sugar imbalances. When blood sugar rises our pancreas releases insulin to remove the sugar from the blood and transport it to our tissues. When blood sugar drops too low (called hypoglycemia) our body releases stress hormones called cortisol and/or adrenaline in order to pull stores of sugar out of our tissues and put it back in our blood. Blood sugar needs to be the middle porridge – not too high and not too low, juuust right.
Most people don’t connect the rise in blood sugar to the drop in blood sugar, but the two are intimately connected. Blame it on your stupid pancreas! It is a dumb organ. It was held back twice in elementary school because it is terrible at predicting how much blood sugar is coming from your diet. It’s like it’s main friggen job, and it sucks at it.
Your pancreas is also a drama queen. It overreacts all the time. When it notices your blood sugar rising it just squirts out whatever insulin is in its pouches. If you spike your blood sugar before bed every night it figures it needs to store a whole lot of insulin because hey, it’s happens all the time. Unused sugar floating around in your blood stream can be damaging to your body. So when blood sugar starts going up your pancreas thinks “Oh no, oh no, oh no!” Then “Bam!” as Emril would say, you get a massive dose of insulin sent into the blood stream.
If there is more insulin in the blood stream than there is sugar guess what happens? All the blood sugar is removed and now you have dangerously low blood sugar. This is technically called “reactive hypoglycemia”.
In a nutshell – blood sugar spikes, too much insulin is released, blood sugar gets too low, and adrenaline/cortisol are released to pull blood sugar back up.
You probably heard that adrenaline/cortisol are “fight or flight” hormones. They switch your body from a nice, relaxed state to a hyper-alert, let’s-kick-some-ass state in an instant. These hormones are designed to sacrifice your long term health in order to handle a life threatening situation. You’re body is pretty obsessed with staying alive, and these hormones are a nice ace in the hole should anything come up.
Here’s the problem – your body views low blood sugar as a potentially life threatening situation. Adrenaline and cortisol are needed because the tank is out of gas – and you can’t run a motor on empty.
The problem with sleeplessness or nightmares is that you’ve got adrenaline and cortisol coursing through your veins at night, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to fall asleep when a bear is chasing me. Same goes with blood sugar imbalance.
Many people think that the nightmare causes your rapid heartbeat, but in reality it’s the other way around. The blood sugar teeter totter flips to the low side and your body releases stress hormones. Your heartbeat jumps first. It’s only then that you mentally experience a nightmare or a restless mind – not the other way around. Low blood sugar is the root cause, the sleep issues are merely the symptom.
Now that we’re all on the same page, we can see that the solution is easy. Stop spiking your blood sugar! It’s a diet and lifestyle issue. What are the worst culprits that cause our blood sugar to spike, especially at night? Late night sweets snacking and alcohol are usually the two worst offenders, but too many carbohydrates like rice, bread, and pasta at dinner can be the problem too. Coincidentally, why do you think caffeine makes it difficult to fall asleep at night? You guessed it, caffeine causes your body to release cortisol and adrenaline.
Short Term Solution: If you wake up from a nightmare or if you can’t fall asleep in the first place, eat something (small), even if it’s the middle of the night. The best choice would be a piece of protein, but some type of fat or (as a last resort) a complex carbohydrate will do too. I’ll usually grab a slice of roast beef or cheese from the fridge, or eat a spoonful of peanut butter. Heck, I’ve even eaten a half of a banana when I’m in a pinch.
Why Does This Work? You want to stop releasing stress hormones. Give your body a little bit of blood sugar and it doesn’t freak out in response to hypoglycemia. Slow digesting calorie sources like protein and fats are the best because there is a slow trickle of sugar into the blood. Eating carbs may only perpetuate the cycle, but they are still better than nothing.
Long Term Solution: Stop eating so many carbohydrates and drinking a box of wine every night (or anytime for that matter). Teach your pancreas to store moderate amounts of insulin so the overreaction doesn’t occur in the first place. Eat more proteins, healthy fats and low calorie vegetables. Exercise can help too, but skip those “Gym Rage” pre-workout supplements, because guess what hormones they force your body to release? Also, post-workout shakes with lots of carbs and “carb loading” for athletes can cause the same issues. Reactive hypoglycemia is one of the most common problems among athletes. I know, I’ve been there!
So the next time you wake up in a dead sweat after accidentally karate chopping your partner in your sleep, don’t bother trying to talk yourself down. It won’t work. Instead, eat some ants on a log and fall fast asleep…so you can have sweet dreams of the good ‘ol days when you would eat a tub of Cherry Garcia before bed.