The Connection Between Sleeplessness and Diabetes

The relationship between diabetes and poor sleep is intertwined in a cycle of sleep disturbances and hormonal changes that can affect a person's daytime alertness and other physical health issues, such as kidney function and obesity.

Diabetes, a chronic disease, occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin (Type 1) or when the body is unable to effectively use the insulin it produces (Type 2). Insulin regulates blood sugar. Type 1 diabetes typically occurs in childhood. The cause is unknown, and people with this condition have to administer insulin daily since their body doesn’t produce sufficient amounts.

Type 2 diabetes is characterized by adult or childhood onset in people whose bodies were previously able to process insulin. This is the more common type of diabetes, and it is often linked to excess body weight and a sedentary lifestyle. Type 2 symptoms tend to be more subtle than Type 1, so people often don’t know they have Type 2 diabetes until complications occur and they seek medical attention.

According a 2018 World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheet, the number of people with diabetes rose from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014, making diabetes a global epidemic. It’s a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart disease, strokes and lower limb amputations. WHO estimates that diabetes directly caused 1.5 million deaths in 2019 and contributed to another 2.2 million deaths.

How is sleeplessness linked to diabetes?

High blood sugar causes the body’s kidneys to work to remove excess sugar, which results in a frequent need to urinate. This affects sleep since people with elevated blood sugar levels wake up during the night to go to the bathroom. Clinicians who treat people with diabetes frequently inquire about the patient’s sleep quality since diabetes is known to disrupt rest.

There is no direct proof that sleeplessness causes diabetes, but there is evidence that sleeplessness can increase the risk of developing the disease. A study published in Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews says that insomnia increases the risk of developing diabetes by 16% overall. In the study, people under age 40 who had insomnia were 31% more likely to get diabetes than peers without insomnia.

Interestingly, the study found that the risk fell among older adults. People aged 41 to 65 were 24% more likely to develop diabetes than those in that group who were not dealing with insomnia. The risk of acquiring the disease dropped even more for those aged 66 and older — people with insomnia were only 6% more likely to develop diabetes than age peers without insomnia.

American woman awake on bed sleepless with alarm clock

What are possible causes of the link, and what can people do to lower their risk?

Experts emphasize that insomnia is a sleep disorder that deprives the body of the restorative powers of sleep, which puts stress on the body. Sleeplessness affects the glucose metabolism as well as hormone production, reducing insulin sensitivity. A person whose body is under stress may unconsciously respond by overeating or be drawn to high-calorie, high-fat foods.

People who are dealing with sleeplessness may also react by conserving energy because they’re tired all the time. A sedentary lifestyle combined with poor eating habits definitely heightens the risk of obesity, and excess body weight results in a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. In this way, sleeplessness can contribute to a cycle that leads to diabetes.

Senior couple is doing sport outdoors. Stretching in park during sunrise.

So, how can people who have trouble sleeping reduce their risk? Better overall sleep quality is a must. Clinicians say that medication can be a short-term solution if the sleeplessness is severe. Doctors also recommend reducing exposure to bright electronic screens, which can interrupt the circadian rhythm. Short daytime naps can also be part of a healthy sleep regimen.

People with a higher risk of developing diabetes can take steps to reduce that risk before they develop the disease. A doctor can recommend a diet and exercise routine to reduce excess weight and increase physical activity. Getting a good night’s sleep can help those at risk ensure they have the energy they need to exercise and stay on track with dietary goals.   

Diabetes is a serious disease, especially for people with comorbidities. If you experience symptoms associated with diabetes (increased thirst and urination, fatigue, blurred vision, numbness in hands/feet, sudden weight loss, dry mouth, itchy skin, slow healing sores, areas of darkened skin usually in the armpits/neck, or frequent infections) please consult your primary physician for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.