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Diabetes Health Center

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Sleep and Diabetes: The Secret Link

A Break in Rhythm, Leftovers From Childhood

Researchers at the University of Colorado found that short sleep breaks the body’s natural rhythms.

They simulated a 5-day work week with nights of 5 hours of sleep. They included times that subjects were wide awake and eating when they should’ve been sleeping. Next, they noted when participants’ melatonin levels were highest. (Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep.) Normally, that’s when you’re supposed to be asleep. But scientists found that if it stayed high after the subjects woke up, their bodies were less sensitive to the effects of insulin. In fact, it was 20% lower.

Doctors also found that if participants ate when they should've been asleep, they might also have a higher risk of diabetes.

“We found the longer you are awake during the biological night, the worse your insulin sensitivity is,” Kenneth Wright, the study’s lead researcher, wrote in a press release. “This is important because impaired insulin sensitivity can lead to both prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.”

For younger people, a lack of quality sleep leads to an even greater risk of diseases, including diabetes.

“There also may be critical developmental points early in life, or critical susceptibility points ... that may actually cause certain disturbances in metabolism, even something that we call reprogramming of your metabolism,” Redline says. “It may be that as you are a short sleeper earlier in life, you are more likely to develop visceral fat - fat around your abdomen - and that's what kind of fat we see associated with diabetes and heart disease.

“It may be that as you get older, and you try to catch up with sleep, you haven’t really overcome the fact that earlier in life, you've developed a certain type of body habit, or a certain trajectory for weight gain, or you've reprogrammed some of your cells.”

Ideal Sleep

Seven to 8 hours a night is the goal, most experts say. It varies depending on age. Infants, toddlers, and teens need more sleep.

Knowing how much sleep is healthy is one thing. Getting it on a regular basis is another. Especially when all sorts of obstacles often stand in the way, from a snoring bed partner, to chronic diseases like sleep apnea or depression, to the TV blaring, to your work schedule, even to that spicy taco you had for dinner.

“I think what is well understood -- and you don't need a health care professional degree to realize this -- is that Americans, in general, underestimate the importance of sleep and its benefits to health and, actually, your quality of life,” says Kellie Antinori-Lent, a diabetes clinical nurse specialist in Pittsburgh.

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