Diabetes and Sleep

Updated on July 31, 2019 While all product recommendations are chosen independently, we may receive compensation for purchases made through our site. Learn more about our affiliate program here.
 

The quality of your sleep can be closely tied to what health conditions you have, and diabetes is no exception. Research has shown that sleep disorders are more common in people with diabetes. Sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome are all types of sleep disorders often faced by diabetic sleepers.

That means for the more than 30 million Americans who have diabetes (around 95% of whom have Type 2), disturbed or disordered sleep can be a major problem. Since sleep disturbance itself is a significant risk factor for diabetes, this can become a vicious cycle.

This guide will go over just how diabetes affects sleep, breaking down the most prevalent types of sleep disorders faced by people with diabetes. You’ll find some tips on how to improve your sleep quality, as well as a list of resources for people with diabetes and sleep issues.

Please remember that while our guide is thorough and well-researched, it is not a replacement for medical advice. Always consult your doctor or qualified physician with any questions or concerns you have regarding medical conditions, treatments, and advice.

What is Diabetes?

People who have diabetes don’t process insulin in the same way as other people. Your body converts the food you eat into glucose (sugar) as an energy source. This is done with the help of your pancreas. Your pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that takes the glucose in your blood and puts it into your cells for energy. People with diabetes, however, either can’t produce enough insulin or can’t use insulin well. So when you have diabetes, the sugar in your blood, otherwise known as your blood sugar, is dangerously high. This can cause all sorts of health issues including heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, nerve damage, and eye damage. In fact, the CDC reports that diabetes is the “seventh leading cause of death in the United States.”

What does diabetes actually look like? The symptoms of diabetes can include:

  • Frequent infections
  • Sores that take a while to heal
  • Blurry vision
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss that you can’t explain
  • Increased hunger and thirst
  • Needing to urinate more frequently

Because these symptoms aren’t unique to diabetes, people may have diabetes and not even know it. In fact, one out of four people with diabetes are undiagnosed and unaware of their disease. Certain factors, however, can make your risk of getting diabetes higher than average. WebMD lists these as including family history, comorbidity, obesity, ethnic background, lifestyle, age, prediabetes, insulin resistance, and others, with different risk factors applying to different types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes

When you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make insulin. This type of diabetes usually develops when you’re a child (typically between 4 and 7 years old) or an adolescent (typically 10 and 14 years old) and will remain for the rest of your life.

Although Healthline reports only 5 percent of all diagnosed diabetics have type 1, it has risk factors just like other types of diabetes. These include having a parent or sibling who has type 1 diabetes, having certain genes, being farther away from the equator, having a pancreatic disease, and having an infection or illness that damages your pancreas.

Symptoms for type 1 diabetes are mostly the same as other types of diabetes, although they can seem to appear suddenly and also include bed-wetting in children who didn’t previously have this problem.

Type 2 Diabetes

When you have type 2 diabetes, your body either can’t make enough insulin or resists using it correctly. Like type 1 diabetes, type 2 is a chronic illness. Unlike type 1, however, it usually begins when you’re an adult, although the more children are now being diagnosed with type 2.

This type makes up for 90 to 95% of diagnosed cases. Knowing that, it makes sense that there are a lot more risk factors for type 2 than there are for type 1. These include being obese or overweight, storing fat mainly in your abdomen, not getting enough physical activity, being older than 45 years old, having untreated prediabetes, having gestational diabetes, having polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), having insulin resistance, and having a parent or a sibling with diabetes. People of Latino, African-American, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Alaskan descent are also at higher risk for type 2 diabetes.

Unlike with type 1 diabetes, symptoms for type 2 diabetes develop slowly. They’re mostly the same as other types of diabetes, with the additional symptom of darkened skin, typically around your armpits and neck, according to the MayoClinic.

Gestational Diabetes

Unlike type 1 and type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes only affects pregnant women–around 4% of all pregnancies in the U.S.. While it develops during pregnancy and usually goes away after delivery, it is itself a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

As for gestational diabetes’ own risk factors, the MayoClinic and WebMD also list being obese or overweight, having glucose intolerance, having had gestational diabetes before, having prediabetes, having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes, and being older than 25 when you’re pregnant. Women of African-American, Latino, Native American, and Asian descent also have a higher chance of getting gestational diabetes.

Unlike type 1 and type 2, gestational diabetes mostly doesn’t have noticeable symptoms.

Type 1 Diabetes

When you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make insulin. This type of diabetes usually develops when you’re a child (typically between 4 and 7 years old) or an adolescent (typically 10 and 14 years old) and will remain for the rest of your life.

Although Healthline reports only 5 percent of all diagnosed diabetics have type 1, it has risk factors just like other types of diabetes. These include having a parent or sibling who has type 1 diabetes, having certain genes, being farther away from the equator, having a pancreatic disease, and having an infection or illness that damages your pancreas.

Symptoms for type 1 diabetes are mostly the same as other types of diabetes, although they can seem to appear suddenly and also include bed-wetting in children who didn’t previously have this problem.

Type 2 Diabetes

When you have type 2 diabetes, your body either can’t make enough insulin or resists using it correctly. Like type 1 diabetes, type 2 is a chronic illness. Unlike type 1, however, it usually begins when you’re an adult, although the more children are now being diagnosed with type 2.

This type makes up for 90 to 95% of diagnosed cases. Knowing that, it makes sense that there are a lot more risk factors for type 2 than there are for type 1. These include being obese or overweight, storing fat mainly in your abdomen, not getting enough physical activity, being older than 45 years old, having untreated prediabetes, having gestational diabetes, having polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), having insulin resistance, and having a parent or a sibling with diabetes. People of Latino, African-American, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Alaskan descent are also at higher risk for type 2 diabetes.

Unlike with type 1 diabetes, symptoms for type 2 diabetes develop slowly. They’re mostly the same as other types of diabetes, with the additional symptom of darkened skin, typically around your armpits and neck, according to the MayoClinic.

Gestational Diabetes

Unlike type 1 and type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes only affects pregnant women–around 4% of all pregnancies in the U.S.. While it develops during pregnancy and usually goes away after delivery, it is itself a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

As for gestational diabetes’ own risk factors, the MayoClinic and WebMD also list being obese or overweight, having glucose intolerance, having had gestational diabetes before, having prediabetes, having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes, and being older than 25 when you’re pregnant. Women of African-American, Latino, Native American, and Asian descent also have a higher chance of getting gestational diabetes.

Unlike type 1 and type 2, gestational diabetes mostly doesn’t have noticeable symptoms.

How is Diabetes Treated?

Although diabetes has no cure, it can be managed with treatment and changes to your lifestyle. All types of diabetes can be managed with the help of maintaining a healthy weight through a healthy diet and regular exercise. For type 1 and type 2 diabetes, frequent blood sugar monitoring is essential. Insulin therapy is also necessary for all people with type 1 diabetes, and can be necessary for many people with type 2 and gestational diabetes, as well. Lots of people with diabetes also take medication to treat their diabetes, and some get pancreas transplants and bariatric surgery.

Not only can some of these treatments help manage your diabetes symptoms, but they can also improve your sleep. In an interview with WebMD, Lynn Maarouf, the education director at the University of Texas’ Stark Diabetes Center, said that diabetes patients with too-high blood sugar levels often don’t sleep well. For example, because their kidneys are trying to get rid of the excess blood sugar, they might be getting up to urinate all night long, interrupting their sleep. Furthermore, this lack of energy will push people with diabetes to eat more during the day, especially sugary foods or those that will otherwise spike blood sugar levels. This is why she recommends eating properly to help control blood sugar levels as one way for patients with diabetes to get a good night’s sleep.

How Diabetes Affects Sleep

Sleep deprivation and diabetes can lead to and make each other worse. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation can throw off your hormone levels, specifically your insulin, which can lead to too much glucose in your bloodstream. This is why sleep deprivation increases your risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

Furthermore, a medically reviewed article by Healthline reports that it’s common for sleep-deprived people to compensate for their lack of energy by over-eating. This leads to a rise in blood sugar levels, which makes it even harder to get a good night’s sleep, perpetuating a cycle of sleep deprivation and high blood sugar levels.

Research shows that people with diabetes are significantly more affected by sleep issues than those who don’t have diabetes. Diabetes can impact your sleep quality in all sorts of ways, including giving you difficulty in falling asleep, staying asleep, and sleeping well throughout the night, or making you sleep too much. In addition to the sleep-deprivation issue caused by frequent urination we mentioned above, people with diabetes also might get up frequently to drink water due to dehydration caused by extra glucose. They may also experience shakiness, dizziness, and sweating because of low blood sugar.

For some people with diabetes, these sleep issues are severe enough to include sleep disorders as well. Sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome are all some sleep disorders faced by people with diabetes.

Sleep Apnea

When you have sleep apnea, you repeatedly stop breathing–up to hundreds of times–as you sleep throughout the night. There are two kinds: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. In the first, your airway is blocked, preventing you from breathing, and in the second, your brain can’t send signals to your muscles to make you breathe.

A dry/sore throat, a loud snore, morning headaches, restless sleep, changes in mood, forgetfulness, disinterest in sex, insomnia, daytime sleepiness, and waking up choking or gasping are all common symptoms of sleep apnea.

This is the most common sleep disorder faced by those with diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes. Part of this is because people with type 2 diabetes can often be overweight, which can lead to the air passage being constricted. Additionally, the increased carbon dioxide in your blood caused by sleep apnea can lead to insulin resistance, exacerbating your body’s issues with using insulin effectively and increasing your blood sugar levels.

Insomnia

When you have insomnia, you have issues falling or staying asleep. Waking up too much during the night, being unable to fall back asleep, waking up too early, and feeling tired when you wake are all symptoms of insomnia.

According to Healthline, high stress levels and high glucose levels put you at a higher risk for insomnia. The diabetes symptoms that we discussed earlier, such as needing to urinate frequently and constantly rehydrate throughout the night, can also cause insomnia.

Restless Leg Syndrome

When you have restless leg syndrome (RLS), you get uncomfortable feelings in your legs that you can only alleviate by shifting or moving them. These symptoms can get worse or only pop up when you’re at rest, such as when you’re lying down, sitting, or sleeping. Because these movements can disturb your sleep, RLS is considered a sleep disorder.

Blood glucose levels and kidney problems (both of which can be caused by diabetes) are risk factors for RLS.

Sleep Help for Diabetes

With all of this said, just because you have diabetes doesn’t mean you will necessarily have sleep issues or sleep disorders. In fact, sleep quality when you have diabetes depends more on how you manage your specific symptoms of diabetes.

As we discussed earlier, eating healthy and regularly exercising can all help keep your blood sugar levels normal and you sleeping better throughout the night. Here are some more tips for getting a better night’s sleep:

  • Treating your sleep apnea. If you have sleep apnea, you can treat it with a CPAP machine. This machine, which goes over your face, keeps your throat from closing by blowing air in and letting you breathe normally. Weight loss, positional therapy (or avoiding sleeping on your back), and surgery that opens up your throat are all possible treatments for sleep apnea.
  • Treating your restless leg syndrome. If your sleep is being impacted by restless leg syndrome, you can help treat it by stretching, taking a warm bath, exercising, or even using medication that lessens the physical symptoms, if your RLS is particularly severe.
  • Getting up at the same time every day.
  • Avoiding using electronics before sleep.
  • Exercising in the daytime, but not before bed.
  • Limiting your caffeine and alcohol intake after noon.
  • Sleeping in a dark and cool room.
  • Trying to relax if you can’t sleep with books, music, meditation, or even relaxation exercises.

Learn More About Diabetes and Sleep

Because maintaining good sleep hygiene is so important to managing your diabetes symptoms, and vice versa, we’ve compiled a list of additional resources about diabetes and sleep that you might find useful.

Resources

  • Diabetes Forecast’s 2019 Consumer Guide: This consumer guide compiled by the magazine Diabetes Forecast collects more than 200 tools for diabetes management and also gives information on choosing the tools that work best for you.
  • Diabetes Education Online: Provided by the University of California, San Francisco’s Diabetes Teaching Center, this website provides all sorts of information, resources, and tips on living with and managing your diabetes. It also compiles in-person workshops on things like insulin pump therapy and controlling your diet and weight for people with type 2 diabetes, for those who live in the Bay Area.
  • Diabetes Diet Center: Published by EatingWell magazine and written by food and nutrition experts, this resource compiles tons of articles, meal plans, and recipes designed for people with diabetes.

Apps

  • mySugr: Recommended in Healthline’s “Best Diabetes Apps of 2019,” this “smart diabetes companion” syncs with your glucose monitor and tracks all sorts of data related to your treatment, like your activity, blood glucose levels, food intake, insulin doses, and medication. It compiles all of this in comprehensive charts that you can easily send to your doctor, if you want.
  • Health2Sync: Recommended in Healthline’s “Best Diabetes Apps of 2019,” this digital diabetes log tracks your blood glucose data and daily activity, and also lets you invite your care team and loved ones to keep an eye on you, become care partners, and give you encouragement and tips.
  • OneTouch Reveal: Recommended in Healthline’s “Best Diabetes Apps of 2019,” this app is meant to go with the OneTouch Verio Flex meter and automatically shows you trends in your blood sugar levels, in addition to organizing everything in a color-coded logbook, plus a host of other functions.
  • Diabetes 24/7: Made by the American Diabetes Association and meant to integrate with Microsoft’s HealthVault, this “personal health record” lets you import and track all sorts of data like your blood glucose, A1C, weight, medications, and more, as well as share it with whoever you like.

Online Support Groups

  • The American Diabetes Association’s Support Community: This online message board by the American Diabetes Association connects you with other people who have diabetes, around the world, allowing you to discuss all sorts of topics like useful apps, whether they find endocrinologists helpful, and what to do about carb cravings, just to name a few.
  • DiabetesSisters: A resource designed especially to connect women who have diabetes, this website is a resource library, a collection of support services, and an online and in-person peer support group all rolled into one.
  • Children With Diabetes: This online message board is aimed at the parents and caretakers of children who have diabetes to discuss all sorts of topics, from healthcare and legislation to day-to-day tips to transitioning to college.
 

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