It’s probably far from obvious, but your diabetes could be the reason that you’re having trouble sleeping.
Type 2 diabetes affects nearly 30 million Americans—and the numbers are growing. Though most of us are aware that the disease has a serious impact on a person’s diet and blood sugar, fewer are familiar with the many related health woes that diabetes can cause—and how they can negatively impact sleep.
Take a closer look at the surprisingly intricate relationship between diabetes and sleep—plus how people with the condition can get a better night’s rest.
Diabetes and Sleep: A Vicious Cycle?
The relationship between diabetes and sleep is complicated, and experts still have a lot to learn about how the whole thing works. What they do know? How much sleep you get could play a role in whether you develop type 2 diabetes in the first place.
First, there’s the growing connection between sleep and obesity. Being overweight is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes. (Believe it or not, up to 90% of people who are diagnosed with the disease are also obese.) What’s more, evidence shows that there are several ways that skimping on sleep could lead to weight gain:
- When you’re zonked, you don’t have the energy to exercise. Research suggests that people who stay up late spend more time sitting than people who wake up early.
- Feeling tired means you’re less likely to make healthy food choices, too. When you’re exhausted, pizza or takeout just feel easier (and more tempting) than a big kale salad.
- Staying up late means more time to eat. People who stay up into the wee hours at night have been found to eat 550 more calories than those who go to bed early.
- Lack of sleep messes with your hormones. Sleep deprivation causes your body to pump out more of the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to weight gain. You’re also flooded with more of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin.
But there’s more to the picture than just gaining weight. As you start to build up a sleep debt, your blood sugar starts to increase. What’s more, too-high levels or cortisol—the stress hormone that creeps up when you’re tired—seems to be linked to insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone that helps your body regulate blood sugar—but when you’re resistant, your body isn’t able to transport sugar into your cells for energy.
And though experts have known about the relationship between sleep deprivation and blood sugar for years, they’re only now beginning to understand exactly how it works. New research suggests that not getting enough sleep can increase levels of free fatty acids in your blood. Those high fatty acid levels seem to reduce insulin sensitivity, as well as hamper your body’s ability to metabolize fat.
What’s more, it doesn’t take long for these effects to take hold: Just one night of shortened sleep was shown to increase those harmful fatty acids by a whopping 30%, and decrease study participants’ ability to regulate blood sugar by nearly a quarter. In other words, even burning the midnight oil just once in a while could be doing more to raise your diabetes risk than you probably think.
How Diabetes and High Blood Sugar Affects Your Sleep
To make matters worse? Having diabetes usually makes quality sleep even more elusive. Here’s how:
- Sleep Apnea: Many people who have type 2 diabetes also suffer from sleep apnea. When untreated, pauses in breathing can cause people to wake up hundreds of times throughout the night.
- Peripheral Neuropathy: Nerve damage in the legs or feet is common among people with diabetes, and can lead to tingling, numbness, burning, or pain that can make it tougher to doze off.
- Restless Leg Syndrome: Another condition common among those with diabetes, RLS can cause feelings of needing to move your legs while sitting or lying down, which can make it harder to fall or stay asleep.
- High or Low Blood Sugar: Both can make it difficult to achieve restful sleep. Too-high blood sugar can leave you feeling hot, irritable, or unsettled. Blood sugar that’s too low could result in nightmares, or cause you to wake up feeling sweaty or clammy.
- Nocturia: Nocturia, or nighttime urination, is a common problem among diabetics that’s usually the result of uncontrolled blood sugar. Having higher amounts of sugar in your urine may cause you to wake up and have to go more frequently during the night.
Smart Sleep Solutions for Diabetics
The bad news is that having type 2 diabetes can lead to several complications that can make adequate sleep harder to come by. The good news? Since doctors know so much about the things that can cause sleep problems for diabetics, there are plenty of solutions that may help you snooze better.
If you have sleep apnea, finding a treatment option that works for you can lead to more restful sleep. For many people, that means getting fitted for a CPAP machine that helps keep your airway open, eliminating snoring or disruptive pauses in breathing. If you’re overweight, losing weight may help ease sleep-stealing snoring, too.
Conditions like peripheral neuropathy and restless leg syndrome can often be managed with medication. If you experience pain in your legs or feet, your doctor can help you find a pain reliever to eradicate the discomfort or make it more tolerable.
Muscle relaxers or medications that boost dopamine levels in the brain can help with restless leg syndrome, too. However, since RLS is often associated with too-high blood sugar, managing your blood sugar may be another way to ease symptoms.
Keeping your blood sugar under control can also help stave off other glucose-related sleep issues, too, such as frequent nighttime urination or nighttime discomfort. It’s important to work with your healthcare team to learn how to best manage your blood glucose levels. But in general, good blood glucose management usually includes:
- Eating the right foods. Learn how many carbohydrates are right for you, and stick to healthy sources like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. (Some of which might even improve your sleep.)
- Planning balanced meals. Eating the right amount of carbs coupled with protein and fat can help keep your blood sugar levels from spiking or dipping.
- Taking your medications at the right time. Talk with your doctor to determine the best times to take your insulin.
- Being physically active can help keep blood sugar levels in check. Plus, regular workouts can help you sleep better, too.
- Monitoring your blood sugar levels. Keeping tabs on your blood sugar means you can take steps to manage highs or lows before they become serious.
Perhaps most important of all? If you have diabetes and are experiencing sleep problems, talk with your doctor. Together, the two of you can develop a strategy to help you better manage your condition—while achieving the rest that you need.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.