You know that your family medical history, along with what you eat and how much you weigh, can affect your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. But did you know that your sleep habits can also play a role? It’s true. In fact, sleep deprivation is an often overlooked but significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes, a disease that involves too much glucose (or sugar) in the blood and increases the risk of heart disease.
The connection may be hard to imagine. But the primary reason that regularly skimping on shuteye can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes is because your hormone levels get thrown out of whack. Specifically, with ongoing sleep loss, less insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar) is released in the body after you eat. Meanwhile, your body secretes more stress hormones (such as cortisol), which helps you stay awake but makes it harder for insulin to do its job effectively. The net effect: Too much glucose stays in the bloodstream, which can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
These effects have been seen with getting between four and a half to six hours of sleep per night. In particular, a decrease in slow-wave (or “deep”) sleep—which is thought to be the most restorative stage of sleep —seems to play a major role in maintaining proper insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.
What Happens When You Sleep?
When we sleep well, we wake up feeling refreshed and alert for our daily activities. Sleep affects how we look, feel and perform on a daily basis, and can have a major impact on our overall quality of life.
To get the most out of our sleep, both quantity and quality are important. Teens need at least 8 hours—and on average 9¼ hours—a night of uninterrupted sleep to leave their bodies and minds rejuvenated for the next day. If sleep is cut short, the body doesn’t have time to complete all of the phases needed for muscle repair, memory consolidation and release of hormones regulating growth and appetite. Then we wake up less prepared to concentrate, make decisions, or engage fully in school and social activities.
How Does Sleep Contribute to All of These Things?
Sleep architecture follows a pattern of alternating REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep throughout a typical night in a cycle that repeats itself about every 90 minutes.
What role does each state and stage of sleep play?
NREM (75% of night): As we begin to fall asleep, we enter NREM sleep, which is composed of stages 1-4
N1 (formerly “stage 1”)
- Between being awake and falling asleep
- Light sleep
N2 (formerly “stage 2”)
- Onset of sleep
- Becoming disengaged from surroundings
- Breathing and heart rate are regular
- Body temperature drops (so sleeping in a cool room is helpful)
N3 (formerly “stages 3 and 4”)
- Deepest and most restorative sleep
- Blood pressure drops
- Breathing becomes slower
- Muscles are relaxed
- Blood supply to muscles increases
- Tissue growth and repair occurs
- Energy is restored
- Hormones are released, such as: Growth hormone, essential for growth and development, including muscle development
REM (25% of night): First occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep and recurs about every 90 minutes, getting longer later in the night
- Provides energy to brain and body
- Supports daytime performance
- Brain is active and
In addition, getting too little sleep can increase your appetite and reduce your level of satiety, causing you to crave carbohydrates and sugary foods, in particular. Over time, indulging in these cravings or overeating, in general, can wreak havoc on your insulin and blood sugar levels, as well as your body weight. (Remember: Obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes.) Plus, when you’re short on sleep, you’re more likely to feel tired and less inclined to exercise, which is a problem because regular exercise helps with weight management and blood sugar control.
Fortunately, if sleep deprivation lasts only a few days, these effects can be reversed—and insulin levels can improve—with as little as two full nights of sleep
(nearly 10 hours per night). This is comforting to know when you’re in a pinch and need to stay up late for several consecutive nights to meet a deadline or deal with a family emergency. But don’t make this a habit. In the long run, it’s best to try to get seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep on a nightly basis so you can feel and function optimally and reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other health problems.
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