What's the Link Between Sleep and Diabetes?

Health Writer

You might not think that sleep and diabetes have much in common. At first, it seems hard to imagine how the two could be connected. But they’re more closely related than you might expect.

It turns out that the amount of sleep you get can have a notable effect on your blood sugar. And if you already have diabetes, the disease could make it harder to get the quality shuteye that you need, resulting in even more trouble keeping your blood sugar under control.

So how does it all work, and what can you do about it? Here’s what you need to know.

How sleep affects diabetes risk

Experts are learning more and more about how sleep time is tied to a number of health problems. And that seems to include type 2 diabetes.

In a 2015 meta-analysis of nearly 500,000 adults, getting too little sleep was tied to a significantly greater type 2 diabetes risk. It turns out that sleep deprivation can impact the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin and the stress hormone cortisol. Too little sleep causes the body to release less insulin after you eat. At the same time, the body makes more cortisol to try to help you stay awake. The problem? Cortisol makes insulin less effective, so it’s not able to regulate your blood sugar as well. As a result, according to the National Sleep Foundation, more glucose stays in your blood stream, causing your blood sugar to rise.

Poor sleep habits also increase the odds for obesity, a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Research shows that not sleeping enough could make people hungrier and prompt them to choose less healthy foods. It can leave people with less energy to be physically active, too. And all of these things can add up to pounds gained.

How diabetes affects sleep

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make diabetes more likely. If you’re already diabetic, you might find that quality sleep is particularly hard to come by. That’s because diabetes — both type 1 and type 2 — can increase the chances for mid-slumber interruptions and some sleep disorders.

For starters, blood sugar that isn’t well controlled can make you feel extra thirsty and cause more frequent urination. And getting up throughout the night to drink more water or use the bathroom can disrupt your sleep. If your blood sugar drops too low, you could also wake up in the middle of the night feeling hungry, sweaty, or dizzy, explain Joslin Diabetes Center experts.

That’s not all. Having diabetes makes you more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea — a disorder marked by short pauses in breathing. These pauses can interrupt your sleep, even if you don’t notice them during the night. Diabetes can also up the likelihood for restless leg syndrome, characterized by disruptive leg twinges or a feeling like something is creeping or crawling on your legs.

Making matters worse, the problem can turn into a vicious cycle. Sleep deprivation can make it even harder to manage your blood sugar. And blood sugar that isn’t well controlled can exacerbate sleep issues.

Getting the sleep you need

Whether you already have diabetes or hope to minimize your diabetes risk, practicing good sleep hygiene can help protect your health. Some steps you can take:

  • Make sleep a priority. Aim to get 7 to 8 hours per night. If you have trouble sticking to your bedtime, try to minimize distractions like TV, email, or social media. Experts recommend winding down with a quiet activity instead, like reading or taking a warm bath.
  • Manage your blood sugar. Eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, take your glucose-lowering medications as prescribed, and try to keep your stress levels in check, say Mayo Clinic experts. If you’re still having trouble, talk with your doctor for help.
  • Watch for signs of sleep disorders. Loud snoring, waking up with a dry mouth, morning headaches and daytime fatigue could be symptoms of sleep apnea. Unusual or uncomfortable feelings in your legs or feet that occur mostly at night after you’ve been lying down may indicate restless leg syndrome. If you notice any of these signs, let your doctor know. She can refer you for testing and decide if treatment is right for you.

See more helpful articles:

Just How Sleep-Deprived Are You?

The Right Amount of Sleep to Avoid Diabetes

The Smart Way to Fight Insomnia With Exercise