Too Little Sleep Means Insulin Works Poorly

Research published February 19 in Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, shows that lack of sleep can elevate levels of free fatty acids in the blood. The full-text of the study, “Sleep restriction increases free fatty acids in healthy men,” is available free online. An earlier study, “Fatty Acids, Obesity, and Insulin Resistance,” connected the dots between fatty acids and diabetes.

They Discover the Cause

This is an important study because it found how and why enough sleep is important for managing our diabetes. When scientists know the mechanism, we can have more confidence in their conclusions.

When Insulin Doesn’t Work Well

This is the first study that examined the impact of sleep loss on 24-hour fatty acid levels in the blood. It shows that insufficient sleep may disrupt fat metabolism and reduce the ability of insulin to regulate our blood sugar. Here are two images associated with sleep restriction.

The people in the study were 19 healthy male volunteers between 18 and 30. The researchers carefully monitored how much they slept, and they strictly controlled their diet. In randomized order the subjects got an average of 7.8 hours of sleep for four nights in one study and 4.3 hours of sleep on four other nights in another study at least four weeks apart.

This is a small study, but the results were dramatic. The researchers found that sleep restriction resulted in a 15 to 30 percent increase in late night and early morning fatty acid levels. This correlated with an increase in insulin resistance — the bane of all of us who have type 2 diabetes — that persisted for nearly five hours. These elevated fatty-acid levels in the blood are usually seen only in people who are obese and in people who have type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

“Curtailed sleep produced marked changes in the secretion of growth hormone and levels of noradrenaline–which can increase circulating fatty acids,” says Josiane Broussard, Ph.D., the lead author of the study. “The result was a significant loss of the benefits of insulin. This crucial hormone was less able to do its job. Insulin action in these healthy young men resembled what we typically see in early stages of diabetes.”

Enough Sleep Helps Us Manage Our Diabetes

The study suggests that something as simple as getting enough sleep could help counteract the current epidemics of diabetes and obesity. For those of us who already have diabetes, getting enough sleep doesn’t mean that our diabetes will magically go away. But it certainly suggests that avoiding too little sleep can make it easier to manage our blood sugar.

But determining how much sleep is optimal is a separate issue. Another study that I will analyze here soon addresses that question.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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  • Helen Mueller at

    I have heard too that the pineal gland is very sensitive to certain kinds of light, particularly as seen in electronics. I read at night; if I do watch tv, it is for about an hour, and well before bedtime. I try to stay away from the computer altogether. Nevertheless, because of painful conditions, my sleep is poor. Sometimes I feel if I lay in bed another wakeful instant, my eyeballs are going to fall on the pillow; so I get up and read for an hour or two until I am again sleepy. Meditation which used to put me to sleep no longer works; but I think it is me and not the meditation per se. Since I am retired, I can nap, if necessary. Now I wonder, does napping, aside from combating exhaustion, reset those bodily chemicals to more normal functioning?

  • Jane at

    This does give added emphasis to getting enough sleep. For various reasons over the past 10 years I’ve had periods of sleeping only 5-6 hours and I had read that this puts the body on alert to produce cortisol which increases weight gain. I didn’t want to gain weight before I got diabetes and now it’s even more critical. [full disclosure, I need to lose weight]. One of the challenges I’ve faced is that when I wake up at night and my brain is wide awake I have either started reading a book or worse, gotten on the computer. Neither of which encourages my brain to sleep. In the last year, I’ve taken another approach and that is reciting a meditation that seems appropriate at the time. Even if I don’t go to sleep, I feel it’s better to stay relaxed in case sleep does return. I’m wondering what others have experienced?

    I have read a reasonable amount of information on how to prepare for sleep which has been useful. I’m also wondering if you or others are familiar with the research that indicates TV’s and computers upset the pineal gland [I think] and that using electronics too close to retiring for sleep affects the brain. P.S. This is the second comment I’ve submitted but the first one didn’t appear so I’m trying again.

  • Jane at

    In the past I’d read that lack of sleep prompted the body to produce cortisol which then tells the system to retain weight. Which was alarming anyway. I’ve had periods of time over the years of difficulty in sleeping from various reasons. One thing I’ve noticed in the past 3 years is that even though I know I need to stay in bed and go back to sleep, I’m also more interested in getting up to read or get on the computer. This year I’ve really had to rely on meditation to at least stay in bed until it’s close to getting up. Now this research makes it more compelling to follow the advice of getting enough sleep.