Lack of Sleep and Type 2 Diabetes: What’s the Connection?

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Nearly one-third of Americans struggle to get a full night’s sleep on a regular basis. But this widespread issue isn’t just about feeling tired or less productive. It’s also a critical factor in your metabolic health. 

In this article, we’ll explore the bidirectional link between lack of sleep and type 2 diabetes, and discuss effective lifestyle tips to help you get a great night’s rest, every night.

Can lack of sleep cause diabetes?

Research shows that even a slight reduction in your nightly sleep can significantly increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

A pivotal study conducted by Columbia University in New York showed that reducing sleep by just 90 minutes nightly for six weeks significantly increased insulin resistance among healthy women–particularly those who were postmenopausal. 

This condition, characterized by the body’s impaired response to insulin, leads to elevated blood glucose levels, which is a fundamental marker of type 2 diabetes.

What’s more, this change isn’t temporary if the sleep deprivation is chronic. It has the potential to evolve into a serious, ongoing health condition.

Another study, conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden involving nearly 250,000 participants of both genders, found those getting fewer than six hours of sleep nightly faced a significantly higher risk of developing diabetes–regardless of their dietary habits. 

This insight suggests sleep might play an even bigger role in type 2 diabetes than the foods we eat.

How lack of sleep affects metabolic health and blood sugar

According to the Head Sleep Expert and Neuroscientist at Wesper Sleep Care, Dr. Chelsie Rohrscheib, “Chronic sleep loss leads to insulin resistance in several ways.”

“Our circadian rhythm, the body’s 24-hour biological clock, is responsible for controlled fluctuation of blood sugar levels during the day and night. When we don’t get quality sleep, our circadian rhythm becomes dysregulated, and our blood sugar is impacted,” she adds.

Furthermore, lack of sleep leads to hunger hormone imbalances. It “increases the activity of ghrelin, the hormone that makes us feel hungry, and decreases the activity of leptin, the hormone that makes us feel full.”

“Clinical studies have shown that sleep-deprived individuals consume more calories on average and tend to eat foods that are considered unhealthy, such as food containing high levels of fat and sugar,” Dr. Rohrscheib says.

Therefore, if you’re sleep-deprived, you’re more likely to experience sharp blood sugar spikes and weight gain–which can diminish insulin sensitivity.

Related:   Cause of Inflammation in Diabetes Identified

Researchers at Uppsala University also found that not getting enough deep sleep–specifically, slow-wave sleep–can make it harder for the body to use glucose (sugar) for energy. This process is vital for keeping blood sugar levels stable.

Without sufficient deep sleep, the body’s ability to use sugar effectively decreases. In fact, the body’s response to insulin–the hormone that helps control blood sugar levels–can drop by nearly 30%. 

These factors dramatically escalate the risk of type 2 diabetes or worsen existing diabetes by making it harder to manage blood glucose.

More negative impacts of sleep deprivation on blood sugar

There are several other physiological mechanisms through which sleep deprivation can raise your diabetes risk, as well, including:

  • Altered energy metabolism in skeletal muscles: Lack of sleep shifts muscle energy use away from glucose and towards breaking down fats, causing excessive ketone production in the liver–which leads to poor blood sugar control.
  • Increased sympathetic nervous system activity can lead to higher blood sugar levels due to stress responses–namely, an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and glucose into the bloodstream for added energy.
  • Changes in gut microbiota can negatively impact overall metabolic health, namely by limiting the production of beneficial chemicals like short-chain fatty acids that support metabolic and immune functions.

So don’t skip out on sleep. It acts as a reset button for the body, aligning blood sugar levels within a healthy range overnight and supporting your overall health. 

The bidirectional relationship between lack of sleep and type 2 diabetes 

While lack of sleep can contribute to diabetes, diabetes can also disrupt sleep patterns. Fluctuating blood sugar levels throughout the night can interrupt the natural sleep cycle, causing frequent waking and struggling to fall back asleep. 

High blood sugar levels can lead to excessive urination and thirst, while low levels can cause symptoms such as sweating and nightmares, further degrading sleep quality.

Women with diabetes may face additional sleep problems due to hormonal fluctuations associated with menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.

This two-way connection between sleep and blood sugar levels shows us just how crucial hormones are for your metabolic health.

Tips to get better sleep and combat diabetes

Whether you’re concerned about developing diabetes or already suffer from the disease, here are some natural, science-backed strategies that can improve your sleep quality–and, therefore, help your blood sugar levels.

Related:   Diabetes in Children is a Chronic, but Treatable, Disease

Optimize your sleep environment.

Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep by keeping it cool, quiet, and dark. Set your thermostat for about 68 degrees, and consider minimizing disruptions by using:

  • Blackout curtains
  • Eye masks
  • A white noise machine

Establish a consistent sleep schedule.

Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day–including weekends–synchronizes your internal clock and supports high-quality sleep.

Be mindful of naps.

While naps can support mood and productivity, too much sleeping in the daytime can make it harder to power down at night. So limit naps to 20-30 minutes, and avoid taking them late in the afternoon.

Exercise regularly–but not before bed.

Regular physical activity helps regulate blood sugar and makes you sleepier at night. Just avoid vigorous workouts close to bedtime, as they can be stimulating and affect your sleep quality.

Mind your diet.

Avoid large meals and caffeine near bedtime–they can cause indigestion and disrupt sleep. Limiting simple carbohydrates throughout the day can also help stabilize blood sugar levels.

Watch your fluids.

While staying hydrated is important, try minimizing fluids close to bedtime to combat disruptive trips to the bathroom during the night.

Limit exposure to blue light.

Reduce evening screen time to help regulate melatonin levels and promote sleepiness. If you must use your phone or another screen at night, invest in some blue light blocking glasses.

Consider psychological interventions.

Stress and anxiety can exacerbate sleep problems. Consider stress-reduction techniques such as:

  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Establish a relaxing pre-sleep routine.

Develop a bedtime ritual to signal to your body that it’s time to rest. Some fantastic options include:

  • Reading
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Sipping hot chamomile tea
  • Doing relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing

Use the bed for sleeping only.

Reserve the bed for sleep and intimacy. Avoid using it for work, eating, or watching TV, as these activities can make it harder to associate the bed with sleep.

There’s a strong, bidirectional connection between lack of sleep and type 2 diabetes. By understanding this link and utilizing the sleep hygiene tips outlined above, you can dramatically reduce your risk of developing the disease–or take powerful steps toward managing it. 

Related:   Heal Thyself: Beating the Sugar Blues

Here’s to more balanced blood sugar levels and a happier, healthier future.

References:

Prevalence of Healthy Sleep Duration among Adults — United States, 2014 | MMWR

The Global Problem of Insufficient Sleep and Its Serious Public Health Implications – PMC

Habitual Short Sleep Duration, Diet, and Development of Type 2 Diabetes in Adults

The Link Between Sleeping and Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review – PMC

Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions – PMC

Cortisol dysregulation: the bidirectional link between stress, depression, and type 2 diabetes mellitus – PMC

Diabetes in America, 3rd Edition – NIDDK

Gut microbiota in human metabolic health and disease | Nature Reviews Microbiology

Sleep Deprivation: Effects on Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance – PMC.

The impact of sleep disorders on glucose metabolism: endocrine and molecular mechanisms

The impact of sleep disorders on glucose metabolism: endocrine and molecular mechanisms – PMC

Effects of poor and short sleep on glucose metabolism and obesity risk – PMC

Obstructive sleep apnoea and long-term risk of incident diabetes in the middle-aged and older general population | European Respiratory Society).

Sleep, circadian rhythms and health – PMC

Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm – PMC

A review of the environmental parameters necessary for an optimal sleep environment – ScienceDirect

Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes: A Position Statement of the American Diabetes Association – PMC

Effects of caffeine on sleep quality and daytime functioning – PMC

Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed – PMC

The role of mindfulness and relaxation in improved sleep quality following a mind-body and activity program for chronic pain – PMC

The influence of blue light on sleep, performance and wellbeing in young adults: A systematic review

Implementation of a nightly bedtime routine: How quickly do things improve? – PMC

Associations between bedtime eating or drinking, sleep duration and wake after sleep onset: findings from the American time use survey – PMC

Module 7. Napping, an Important Fatigue Countermeasure, Nap Duration | NIOSH | CDC

The Role of Sleep Hygiene in Promoting Public Health: A Review of Empirical Evidence – PMC

 

Author
Carrie Solomon

Carrie Solomon is a freelance health writer, web copywriter, and passionate wellness enthusiast. She’s on a mission to help wellness-focused companies everywhere educate, engage, and inspire their audiences to make the world a healthier, happier place. Learn more about her at copybycarrie.com or on LinkedIn.

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