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Sleeping More May Reduce Your Risk of Diabetes, New Study Suggests

The study on insulin resistance in women adds to existing evidence on the link between sleep and how the body uses blood sugar.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Writer
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health news. Before CNET, she worked in local journalism covering public health issues, business and music.
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Jessica Rendall
4 min read
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Add it to the laundry list of reasons to prioritize sleep: Getting adequate rest each night may reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, at least in women, according to the results of a study published this week in Diabetes Care.

Earlier research pointed to sleep loss as a risk factor for many chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart problems. But much of the research has looked at severe, short-term sleep restriction or has been studied in men, as the National Institutes for Health noted in a press release. So researchers in the Diabetes Care study wanted to know what effect being an "average" short sleeper – 6.2 hours per night – had on insulin resistance in women. Insulin resistance happens when the body doesn't respond as well to insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. It can lead to type 2 diabetes.

The study included about 40 women of different ages who had healthy fasting blood sugar levels. Researchers tracked their insulin and glucose responses for two six-week periods: six weeks of adequate sleep and six weeks of sleeping about 6.2 hours per night. They found that getting less sleep for six weeks interfered with insulin and glucose levels, and this was more pronounced in people who've gone through menopause. 

The hope behind the study is that it may provide an easy-to-achieve lifestyle change that could reduce the risk of developing prediabetes, and eventually, type 2 diabetes.

"What we're seeing is that more insulin is needed to normalize glucose levels in the women under conditions of sleep restriction, and even then, the insulin may not have been doing enough to counteract rising blood glucose levels of postmenopausal women," Marie-Pierre St-Onge, senior author on the study and director of the Center of Excellence for Sleep and Circadian Research at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a news release by the National Institutes of Health. 

"If that's sustained over time, it is possible that prolonged insufficient sleep among individuals with prediabetes could accelerate the progression to type 2 diabetes."

Here's what to know about sleep and its relationship to blood sugar and diabetes.

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What is 'short sleep'? 

Everyone skips out on quality sleep every once in a while, and how much sleep you need depends on your age and health, but adults generally need at least seven hours per night. Anything less than 7 hours is considered short sleep, according to the US Centers for disease Control and Prevention. 

In the study from this week, researchers restricted participants' sleep to 6.2 hours per night to represent the median number of hours a short-sleeping US adult gets each night. 

This suggests that you don't have to be pulling an all-nighter or be in the acute phase of sleep deprivation to start putting your body at risk of long-term health consequences. 

What happens to your blood sugar when you sleep? 

Like other crucial parts of the body system, blood sugar is impacted by sleep. Blood sugar fluctuates naturally during sleep – some fluctuation is normal, but it can dip too low in some people. 

In general, sleep is also important for the regulation of blood sugar. A lot of the negative things that can pile onto the body when it's lacking sleep may impact blood sugar levels. This includes the increased amount of cortisol that's released during sleep deprivation, which may increase glucose levels. According to the Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation may also cause more inflammation, which also impacts blood glucose levels.

Read more: Here's Why a Good Night's Sleep Is the Key to Managing Your Depression 

What's next for glucose and sleep tracking 

Continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) are wearables that stick to your arm and pair with an app that monitors glucose levels. They've traditionally been used as a tool for people with type 1 diabetes to manage their blood sugar, but they've gained traction lately by others wanting more insight into how their body processes blood sugar and uses energy -- you can use them to see how your body reacts to certain foods

Oura, the wearable company known for its sleep-tracking metrics, is closing in on the intersection of sleep and glucose monitoring. The company earlier this year announced partnerships with glucose monitoring companies to better integrate sleep information with insight into how the body processes energy. However, due to the fact that traditional CGMs require a prescription in the US, using one without diabetes lacks research on wellness/preventive use instead of diabetes management. 

And for those who do monitor glucose off-label, it may cost a pretty penny compared to other wellness tracking health-tracking features, like heart rate or those geared toward fitness. But that seems likely to change in the future, especially when this feature is paired with sleep.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.