Sleep and Type 2 Diabetes

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on March 07, 2022
3 min read

Sleep problems and type 2 diabetes go hand-in-hand. In fact, each can lead to the other. Here's how:

Too little or poor sleep causes changes in some powerful hormones. Those hormonal adjustments can make it harder to keep your blood sugar and weight under control.

Insulin. This is a hormone that helps your body turn glucose (a type of sugar) into energy. When you’re low on sleep, your cells aren't as sensitive to insulin. Doctors call this insulin resistance. Over time, glucose builds up in your blood and your odds of getting type 2 diabetes go up. Other things can cause insulin resistance too, like being overweight.

Cortisol. When you don't get enough ZZZs, your body releases more of this stress hormone. But too much of it for too long can mess with your sleep even more and keep you up at night. High cortisol also makes it harder for glucose to get into your cells. That leaves more in your bloodstream.  

Ghrelin. Skimp on sleep and you may put on a few pounds. Poor sleep raises levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. As a result, you’re always hungry. And being up all night means you’ve got more time to raid the fridge. Odds are you’ll reach for carbs and sugary snacks instead of carrot sticks. Extra weight and a poor diet are two big drivers of diabetes.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can also lead to type 2 diabetes. In OSA, your breathing slows down or briefly stops while you sleep. This can happen hundreds of times a night. To start breathing again you have to partly wake up, so you don’t get a good night’s rest. That can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Many people with type 2 diabetes often have a hard time sleeping because of disorders tied to the disease, including OSA and:

Peripheral neuropathy. People with type 2 diabetes can have this type of nerve damage that causes tingling, numbness, and loss of feeling in the feet.

Restless legs syndrome. This disorder brings an uncontrollable urge to move your legs. It can also cause pulling, tingling, and pain.

Hypoglycemia. If you don't eat for several hours or you take too much insulin, you can get this, another name for low blood sugar. Symptoms of it, like anxiety, dizziness, irritability, and headaches, can keep you awake.

Hyperglycemia. If you eat too much, miss a medication, or you're sick or stressed, you can have this, another name for high blood sugar. Things that come with it, like peeing a lot, headache, nausea, and vomiting, can make sleeping difficult.

Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Kids and teens need more -- up to 11 hours for school-age kids and 10 for teens. These are general guidelines. What’s best for you depends on your health, lifestyle, and even your genes. But less than 6 hours a night is rarely enough for anyone.

If you have a hard time falling or staying asleep, talk to your doctor. There are proven ways to put your sleep troubles to rest.