Why Exercise May Disrupt Sleep and Cause Anxiety

– Posted in: Anxiety, Physical Health

Woman in gym restingI was waking up in the night filled with anxiety. Why am I awake again? I have always been a great sleeper. The red lights on my alarm clock would stare back at me as I continued to roll around with panic. Was something wrong with me?

My workouts and training involve strict eating guidelines. I’m dedicated to a “T” as my health remains one of the most important aspects of my life.

Night after night, however, I was watching my alarm clock read 2:32 A.M. I knew something was wrong. Turns out, after 2 months of trying this and that, my body was waking me up to eat!

Between the stomach growls and a closer analysis of my calorie consumption, I was not eating enough calories to maintain my muscle composition and reach my restorative sleep cycle.


More Sleep, Less Sugar

Can I still be healthy even if my sleep is interrupted a few times in the night? The problem with poor quality sleep is there is a link between poor sleep and poor eating choices.

In a recent 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists noted that participants in the study who increased their sleep anywhere from 52 to 88 minutes ate less than 10 grams of sugar than in their previous diet.[1]

Thus, the more sleep they received, the less sugar they ate. All the participants before the study normally slept for 5 to 7 hours but increasing their sleep just for an hour more seemed to make a difference. To increase their hours of sleep, the sleep psychologist would meet with each participant on their sleep routines.

The sleep psychologist’s advice for better quality sleep included the absence of using an electronic device before bed, avoiding caffeine too close to bedtime, and not going to bed full, which are just a few of the many recommended sleeping tips.[2] In addition, the psychologist advised participants to not go to bed hungry.

Was I Getting Enough Calories?

For someone who works out and lifts, the number of calories burned goes far above the recommended calories for an average adult male. What may seem like an adequate meal for one person may be starving one’s body of essential nutrients and protein for another.

Like a newborn baby whose body wakes them up to eat every few hours, my body was crying out for fuel. I needed to find how many calories in the areas of fat, protein, and healthy carbohydrates I really needed to meet my goals.

Anxiety: The Force that May Be Keeping You from Weight Loss and True Health

In addition, poor sleep quality meant increased anxiety. During the day, I could tell I was more anxious with work stress that usually never phased me. I would get more anxious before bed, worried that I would not be able to fall asleep.

Study after study shows sleep deprivation slows brain waves in the frontal cortex which in turn causes anxiety.

According to The International Association for The Study of Obesity, scientists continue to conclude that mental stress and anxiety interferes with weight loss strategies.[3] Even people who change their diet and work out seem to not shed pounds when under mental stress.

In addition, there continues to be a connection between binge eating and anxiety. The body is fighting for survival and thinks it is under distress; it is looking for the quickest fuel which we know is carbohydrates. I realize if I don’t fuel correctly during the day, I will pay for it later. All I seem to think about is all the food I know I should not really eat.

The Strange Paradox of Eating and Sleeping

The weird paradox is that eating enough healthy calories will help ensure the quality of your sleep which will in turn keep you from craving carbs and comfort food.

Those who may be working out for more than an hour a day in cardio or strength training need to watch out for those food cravings. Those cravings could mean you are not properly fueling your body to maintain your workout.

Another study published in the journal Sleep in 2016 found that the lack of sleep causes poor eating specifically in the afternoon.[4] The scientists reported that “Sleep restriction seems to augment the endocannabinoid system, the same system targeted by the active ingredient of marijuana, to enhance the desire for food intake.”

This chemical signal is the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Blood levels of 2-AG are typically low overnight. They slowly rise during the day, peaking in the early afternoon.”

Cravings in the afternoon indicate food cravings from a lack of sleep.

Tracking workouts using an app with approximate weight guidelines may help you see how many calories you are really burning. Even some calorie restriction can cause inflammation and distress on the body which for me created a hindrance on my quality of sleep.

Calculate Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure

Different from your Basal Metabolic Rate, these calculators help measure how many calories you are burning with your workouts. The Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) calculator says that a 30-year-old man who is 6 feet tall, weighing 215 pounds with an active job and extra active work-out routine burns 3,354 calories. Thus, if you are only eating 2,500 calories, the almost 1,000 calorie deficit is way too high to maintain proper health and sleep.

Quick Tips

  • Find your Basal Metabolic Rate to see how many calories you burn before workouts to help determine how many calories you should eat to achieve your goal. (Muscle Building, Weight Loss Etc.)
  • Meet with a nutritionist who will assess your work outs and calorie burning to ensure you are getting a proper balance of nutrients. They will look at your basal metabolic rate as well.
  • No caffeine after 3 p.m.
  • Meditation/Prayer for 5 minutes before bed may help relieve anxiety.
  • Do not go to bed hungry or full
  • If struggling with anxiety or mental health, address these issues with a doctor before committing to a strict eating and workout routine. You may become discouraged and give up with the lack of results until you get your anxiety under control.

snoozeez logoAaron Stevenson is sleep enthusiast who could probably get more sleep if he was not writing about it all the time. He is the blog owner of Snooze EZ.


[1] Al Khatib, Haya K. et al. Sleep extension is a feasible lifestyle intervention in free-living adults who are habitually short sleepers: a potential strategy for decreasing intake of free sugars? A randomized controlled pilot study. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/107/1/43/4794751 (February, 2019).
[2] Snooze Ez (January, 2019). 28 Ways To Fall Asleep Faster. Retrieved from http://snoozeez.com/how-to-fall-asleep-fast/ (February, 2019).
[3] IASO (April, 2006) The WHO DPAS consultation on “A framework to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health”. A joint response from the International Association for the Study of Obesity and the European Association for the Study of Obesity. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/IASO-EASO.pdf (February, 2019).
[4] Hanlon, Erin C. et al (March, 2016). Sleep Restriction Enhances the Daily Rhythm of Circulating Levels of Endocannabinoid 2-Arachidonoylglycerol. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/39/3/653/2454026 (February, 2019).

7 comments… add one
Li Jean-Luc Harris February 26, 2019, 7:59 am

Interesting Story, thanks for sharing :) I’ve never encountered a story like this. did improving your calorie intake fix your sleep and anxiety issues?

Priyanka Agarwal March 5, 2019, 6:19 am

WOW! Interesting, Thanks for sharing this information with us.

zealous March 7, 2019, 5:55 am

Thank you for great information. Exercise is very important to everybody. Actually, we slept at late night and if we want to wake up early at that time we will get anxiety. To overcome that problem was don’t wait late night. If we do regularly that will habituate.

Son Tran March 8, 2019, 9:25 pm

Great! Your post is very good.

Saheed Sadath March 26, 2019, 11:45 am

Thank you for such an interesting write up.

Vineeth April 5, 2019, 2:57 am

Thanks for the nice article, I have similar sleep issues. Even if I get to bed early I just lay down eyes open. I take coffee in the evening mostly after 5 pm and now I know I must avoid it. Meditation is another one I really want to try.

jacob April 15, 2019, 3:16 am

This article is designed to educate people on the proper way to obtain better health and maintain it for years to come. Discussed in detail are 8 categories of health, and if followed properly, a person can say good bye to yo-yo dieting and hello to a healthy lifestyle.

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