WASHINGTON – When Shakespeare called sleep the "chief nourisher of life's feast," he may have been well ahead of his time, medically at least. Researchers at the University of Chicago Medical Center report that disrupting sleep damages the body's ability to regulate blood sugar levels, potentially raising the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
More than 18 million Americans have diabetes and the most common form is type 2, in which the body either becomes resistant to insulin or doesn't produce enough of it to regulate sugar in the bloodstream.
In a small experiment, researchers led by Dr. Esra Tasali, an assistant professor of medicine, found that disrupting the deepest sleep periods of volunteers rapidly resulted in reduction in their ability to regulate blood-sugar levels.
The findings are reported in Monday's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers studied the sleep patterns of nine volunteers, five men and four women, all of normal weight, in good health and aged 20 to 31.
Normal sleep is divided into several stages, with the so-called slow-wave sleep considered the deepest.
Whenever the volunteers went into slow-wave sleep the researchers made noise — enough to disturb the sleep though not to fully awaken them.
After just three days the ability of the volunteers to regulate blood sugar was reduced by 25 percent, the researchers reported.
Earlier studies have indicated that lack of sleep can reduce the ability to regulate sugar, and this report adds evidence that poor sleep quality is also a diabetes risk.
"This decrease in slow-wave sleep resembles the changes in sleep patterns caused by 40 years of aging," Tasali said in a statement. Young adults spend 80 to 100 minutes per night in slow-wave sleep, while people over age 60 generally have less than 20 minutes. "In this experiment," she said, "we gave people in their 20s the sleep of those in their 60s."
"Since reduced amounts of deep sleep are typical of aging and of common obesity-related sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, these results suggest that strategies to improve sleep quality, as well as quantity, may help to prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes in populations at risk," said co-author Dr. Eve Van Cauter, a professor of medicine.