Why Sleep Matters For Your Metabolic Health

A good night's sleep can do wonders for your health — including reducing the risk of diabetes.

Pop Quiz: How many hours of sleep did you get last night? If you’re regularly clocking less than seven hours of shuteye, it’s time for a wake-up call. A restful night’s sleep is not something you want to put off (or try to “catch up on” over the weekends). Not only is there a connection between diabetes and sleep, but getting a decent amount of rest is crucial for your metabolic health in general. 

Importance of sleep for health

Sleep is often a silent player in so many aspects of our health—and yet it’s one health parameter that you can exert some control over.

  • A good night’s rest has been linked to healthy brain function as well as lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. 
  • Sleep has also been shown to have an effect on your metabolic health. When you are metabolically healthy, your blood sugar levels are better controlled so you can reduce the risk of prediabetes and diabetes, or fare better if you have either of those conditions, hence the link between diabetes and sleep.
  • You can be in charge of your sleep health, if you embrace some evidence-backed strategies to up your “sleep hygiene.”

Sleep And Health: What the science says 

Studies have long documented that sleep quality and duration is linked to healthy brain function and lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity.

Perhaps less well understood is the important link between sleep health and metabolic health. In a 2018 study, researchers found a compelling connection between lack of sleep and insulin resistance, which put subjects at greater risk for glucose intolerance and diabetes. A 2010 report concluded that people who regularly snoozed between 5 to 6 hours each night were at a  28% increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes, drawing a clear connection between diabetes and sleep.

Sleep also impacts inflammation. A 2014 study found that lack of sleep increases inflammation in the body, which in turn can adversely affect your metabolism. And it’s not just too little sleep. Too much sleep can also cause problems: A 2016 study found that subjects who slept more than 8 hours per night also displayed a rise in inflammatory markers.

Understanding sleep and sleep hygiene: Clinicians use the term sleep hygiene to sum up the healthy sleep habits that increase your chances of getting high-quality rest. (See our suggested sleep hygiene habits, below.) 

  • When it comes to sleep, more isn’t necessarily better. Everyone’s sleep needs will vary slightly, but the Sleep Foundation sets the benchmark at 7 to 9 hours of shuteye per night for most adults, a recommendation backed up by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If you have type 2 diabetes, getting less than seven hours of sleep can make diabetes harder to manage due to increased insulin resistance. 
  • What you eat impacts how well you sleepResearch has shown that a low-protein diet can lead to poor sleep, as can frequent consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. On the flip side, the Mediterranean diet (which is high in all the good stuff: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and nuts) was shown to decrease symptoms of insomnia, including trouble falling and staying asleep, especially among women.
  • Vice versa, poor sleep quality can make you crave more unhealthy foods. A 2020 study found that among nearly 500 women, ages 20 to 76, those who reported poor sleep quality or lack of sleep consumed more foods high in added sugars and saturated fats than those who reported getting enough rest. 

How to improve sleep quality

  • Set a schedule: The key to restful sleep is to find a sweet spot where you wake refreshed and your body has enough time to recover and recharge. While it may seem obvious, simply prioritizing getting enough sleep most nights (for most people that’s 7 to 9 hours) is one step you can’t skip on your path to better sleep. 
  • Eat for sleep: A healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruit, and veggies has been shown to help improve sleep quality. Plus, you want to avoid sleep saboteurs, like too much caffeine or foods high in sugar and fat that upset your sleep cycle and make it hard to achieve that deep, restorative sleep you need.  
  • Limit screen time: If you’re constantly scrolling on your phone or tablet in bed, put the device away. The blue light these devices emit can throw off your sleep-wake cycle by suppressing the body’s natural production of the sleep hormone melatonin. One study found that blocking out blue light (with special glasses) two hours before bed led to improved sleep quality, proving that less screen time can positively impact your shuteye. 
  • Create a cozy sleep environment. It might sound cheesy, but turning your bedroom into a sanctuary can help. Try to limit doing work or watching TV in bed, so your body only associates your bed with sleep. And make the temperature just right: Your “thermal environment” (aka temperature) is one of the most important factors impacting sleep, according to one study. So what temp is best? The National Sleep Foundation says to set the thermostat to around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Meditate: Adopting a mindfulness practice can help you sleep more soundly. One study found that people who took part in mindfulness-based exercises for two hours per week over the course of six weeks reported significant improvements in symptoms of insomnia and fatigue. 
  • Talk to your doc. If you have diabetes and you feel especially fatigued, even if you are getting enough sleep (but never feel rested), ask your doctor what else you can do to improve your energy levels. A 2016 study documented that fatigue is a persistent complaint among those living with type 2 diabetes. Some people living with diabetes may have issues with their thyroid (the gland that helps regulate your metabolism and energy levels). If you’re experiencing issues with diabetes and sleep, talk to your doctor. 

Key takeaways

To improve your metabolic health, which helps keep your blood sugar levels in check, you have to prioritize getting enough rest. Focus on establishing healthy habits (eating right, getting enough sleep, limiting screen time, meditating) that benefit you from day to night. A good night’s sleep can reduce the risk of diabetes, and make you feel generally healthier.

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