Deprivation Nation: How Lack of Sleep Can Lead to Diabetes
The Connection Between Sleep and Diabetes
Here's what we know: Diabetes arises when the body can't properly break down blood sugar, aka glucose, leaving your cells starved for energy. One thing that greatly increases your chances of a blood-sugar malfunction is being overweight. Excess fat makes it harder for cells to properly use insulin, a hormone that helps keep glucose levels normal.
So what does sleep have to do with any of this? "When you don't get enough, your body appears to require more insulin to maintain normal glucose levels," says James Herdegen, MD, medical director of the Sleep Science Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "Sleep deprivation seems to alter the sympathetic nervous system -- the body's stress-control center -- and hormonal balances, all of which affects glucose regulation." Eventually, sleeplessness causes insulin-producing cells to stop working properly, elevating glucose levels and leaving you wide open to diabetes. "Adding to the problem is the fact that fatigue also jolts the sympathetic nervous system into high gear, throwing off its ability to regulate blood sugar," Dr. Cauter says. Indeed, numerous experts point out that it takes just two nights of sleeping four hours or less to temporarily disrupt the process.
Of course, there is the more familiar explanation for why fewer zzz's nudge you closer to diabetes: The less you sleep, the more likely you are to overeat. When you're tired, your body produces extra ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, and decreases its production of leptin, a hormone that flips on the "I'm full" switch in your brain. Not only do you wind up wanting to eat a lot, but you also crave more calories and carbohydrates to get a quick energy boost. (A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that when healthy people got just eight hours of shut-eye in a 48-hour period, their lowered leptin and raised ghrelin levels upped their appetite for unhealthy high-carb, high-calorie foods by as much as 45 percent.)
Sleep scarcity poses the greatest danger to those who are already predisposed to diabetes, such as anyone who's overweight or has a family history of the disease. "For those people, a few nights of poor sleep can push them over the edge," Dr. Cauter says. But even if your genes (or jeans) don't indicate danger, you're not off the hook: In the past 49 years, Americans have shaved a full hour off their nightly sleep schedule, moving from approximately eight hours in 1960, according to the American Cancer Society, to about seven hours today, finds the National Sleep Foundation. Furthermore, the organization reported that 67 percent of women regularly miss out on a good night's rest, possibly doubling their chances of getting diabetes, says Kenneth Snow, MD, acting director of the Adult Diabetes Program at Harvard Medical School's Joslin Diabetes Center.
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