Sleep on This: Lack of Shut-Eye Ups Diabetes Risk

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

June 25, 2001 (Philadelphia) -- Need another reason to get your ZZZs? Well, here's one: People who don't get adequate rest may increase their risk for type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, according to research presented here at the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association.

In a nutshell, lack of sleep puts undue stress on the body. The body, in turn, releases a torrent of stress hormones that interfere with the way blood sugar, or glucose, is processed.

As a result, inadequate sleep may lead to the development of insulin resistance, a prediabetes state in which the cells do not respond to insulin appropriately, so the sugar in the blood cannot get into the cells.

In a study of 27 people, "short-sleepers," or those who slept less than 6.5 hours per night, were about 40% less insulin-sensitive than normal sleepers, those who logged about 7.5 to 8.5 hours a night.

"It's a real possibility that one of the causes of the epidemic of diabetes and obesity is related to short sleep habits," says lead researcher Eve Van Cauter, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.

That's not good news considering that a majority of American adults -- 63% --fail to get the recommended eight hours in the sack, according to statistics from the National Sleep Foundation. Consider that in 1910, Americans averaged about nine hours of slumber per night, and now they're getting less than seven hours.

And sleep loss may worsen diabetes in people with disease, she says.

The next step is to see if extending sleep helps people with type 2 diabetes or those with higher than normal -- but not quite diabetic -- blood sugar levels, a condition called impaired glucose tolerance. This three-year study is slated to begin in September. Half of all patients will extend their sleep by three hours per night, while the others will learn about the importance of regular sleep habits.

"Americans are the most sleep-restricted society," she says, attributing this to people working multiple jobs, having long commutes, juggling family responsibilities, and being bombarded by round-the-clock television and Internet channels.

Her advice? "Watch your sleep the same way that you watch your exercise and nutrition. We are not biologically wired for sleep deprivation," she tells WebMD. "If you have to work long hours, try to make up for it over the weekend."

Researchers measured sleep with watchlike monitors that detect sleep and movement and headbands that monitor movements of the head and the eyelid during sleep.

The new findings make perfect sense to John Buse, MD, PhD, director of the Diabetes Care Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Sleep deprivation is a state of stress, and stress worsens insulin sensitivity." Anything that increases stress can affect diabetes risk, he says.

About 16 million Americans have diabetes. In just the past decade, there's been a 40% increase in diabetes in the U.S. -- and a 70% increase among people in their 30s. Most of the increase is in type 2 diabetes, the form of the disease that is linked to obesity.

For information on participating in the new study, call 773-702-0169.