Sleep Nutrition

As a mother and a fairly health conscious individual, I am always researching the effects of nutrition on my family; More specifically, the effects of sugar.  Have you seen the ‘sugar high’ that happens when our kids consume too much sugar? They run around like crazy, fight, crash and then fight some more – sound familiar?

Starting in pre-kindergarten we have teachers discussing the importance of nutrition in schools and how it affects health, learning and behaviour. But I often wonder why aren’t we talking about sleep in the same way?

Lack of sleep and over indulgence of sugar (or general bad nutrition) are so very similar in potential consequences … Here are a few:


Surprised? Just like lack of sleep, poor nutrition is linked to diabetes.  A simplified definition of diabetes is a metabolic disease where the body cannot produce any or enough insulin which causes elevated glucose in the blood. This sugar then builds up in the body instead of being used for energy.

How does this happen? Our very smart and advanced bodies actually react to sleep loss as though we are insulin resistant.  We know that insulin’s job is to help our body use glucose for energy, therefore, if we are insulin resistant our cells can’t use the insulin efficiently. This results in high blood sugar which then often results in diabetes.   The lack of sleep causes a change in our ability to tolerate glucose which leads to a higher than normal blood sugar level- a precursor to diabetes.

In the past two decades diabetes (specifically type 2 diabetes) has been on the rise in our children and youth.  Because this is such a new discovery and is still not understood, the research is primarily focused on nutrition.  As this area of study continues to develop, the relationship between inadequate sleep and juvenile diabetes requires more attention.

To optimally function, most children require 10-11hrs of sleep but are reportedly averaging only 8h and 35 minutes of sleep – a 2.4 hr deficit. Can you imagine the long term health implications this will have on these overtired children? No wonder we see a rise is type 2 diabetes in our youth!

Overweight or lack of ability to lose weight

If you have read any article out there on weight loss, a key component to successfully losing weight is to get enough sleep.  If the relationship between healthy sleep and a healthy weight applies to adults, wouldn’t it make sense that the same would apply to our children?

To simplify how sleep affects our ability to lose weight, it all comes down to hormones.  The hormone ghrelin tells you when to eat and when a person is sleep deprived, this hormone increases.  The hormone leptin tells you when to stop eating and when a person is sleep deprived this hormone decreases.  When our children are sleep deprived their bodies experience an increase in the ghrelin “let’s eat” hormone and a decrease in the leptin “stop eating” hormone. Also, if we are being honest with ourselves we know that when we or our children are tired, we aren’t reaching for fruits and vegetables but rather we are reaching for the chips and crackers – the high carb comfort foods!

Not only are our children eating more when they are sleep deprived, their metabolism is slower as a result of the lack of sleep.  Many studies have shown that sleep deprivation alters our ability to metabolize glucose and other hormones that are involved in regulating metabolism.  Sleep is a major component in maintaining a healthy metabolism and we see the effects of this in both adults and children.

Overtiredness also increases a hormone called cortisol, which is essentially our stress hormone.  When we discuss with parents about their overtired infants/children, we are forever mentioning that once cortisol is released into the blood stream, falling asleep and staying asleep becomes a little more challenging.  Therefore, we work hard at catching our children’s sleep waves to avoid the overtired state and prevent a spike in cortisol.  Cortisol has also been linked to weight gain as a result of its “fight or flight” capabilities.  When we experience chronic sleep deprivation the result is repeated cortisol exposure. Over a period of time this leads to an increase in our appetite and insulin levels, causing excess glucose production which typically gets turned into fat and stored.  Yet another reason why we need to protect our children’s sleep!

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

I think we can agree that ADHD is a hot topic right now, especially in the school system.  Symptoms of ADHD are hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention. Do these sound similar to all the symptoms of a sugar high?  Now this is a highly debated and very inconsistent topic (effect of diet/sugar on ADHD) but I think I can confidently say that some children are more sensitive to sugar and will exhibit many of the symptoms of ADHD after having a sugary meal or treat.  Also, it has been said that children diagnosed with ADHD may metabolize sugar differently therefore exasperating their symptoms.

How does all of that relate to sleep?  Well lack of sleep (just like a sugar high) causes children to exhibit symptoms of ADHD. That’s right; overtiredness causes hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention! According to the Sleep Foundation there is a definite link between ADHD and a variety of sleep disorders such as higher rates of daytime sleepiness, sleep disordered breathing and restless leg syndrome.  For those children diagnosed with ADHD poor sleep has been known to negatively impact the symptoms of their ADHD.  Some studies have suggested that improving children’s sleep problems may be enough to eliminate their ADHD all together.

Because the symptoms of overtiredness and ADHD are similar, it also has been suggested that the medical field may be over diagnosing these sleep deprived children with ADHD.  I know if I were a parent with a child who experienced ADHD like symptoms I would choose to improve my child’s sleep patterns before turning to pharmaceutical options.

The key to remember here is that adults when overtired get sluggish where children get amped up and speed up – therefore exhibiting many of those ADHD symptoms!

General Behaviour

I think all parents notice a change in their children’s behaviours after being fed a diet of high sugar, it could be as simple as a piece of cake at a birthday party followed by the candy in the goodie bags. Or it could be on the night of Halloween; we have all been there and experienced it.

So besides the noticeable change in our children, there are studies that have shown activity levels are increased with children who have a high-sugar diet. So going back to ADHD information for a moment and remember how I said that overtired children get amped up vs. sluggish like adults? Just like a high sugar diet increases activity levels in children so does being overtired!

There have been very clear links between sleep deprivation, irregular bedtimes and behaviours.  It is known that irregular bedtimes affect our children’s circadian rhythm (our internal body clock) which leads to a decrease in sleep, resulting in detrimental effects on the still developing brain.

Sleep deprivation and irregular bedtimes are closely associated with hyperactivity, emotional problems, conduct issues and problems in social situations with peers.  The good news is that once sleep routines and regular bedtimes occur, our children catch up on sleep and many of these behavioural issues either disappear or improve greatly.

Have I convinced you yet?

Food nutrition is just as important as sleep nutrition.  There are so many similarities and links between our diet and sleep and its effects on our health and wellbeing. What can we do as parents?  Respect sleep nutrition as diligently as we do food nutrition, they both impact our children profoundly and can be life changing for our children and families once we experience a well-rested family!  Happy Sleeping!

Barb Henderson is a Certified Child Sleep Consultant with Sleepwell Baby and the mom of two sets of twins. She works with families to help them get the sleep they need. Barb offers support to parents with children ages 4 months- 8 years old through both in home and remote consultations. She can be contacted at

Subscribe to our Blog!

* indicates required

Hot Topics