Insomnia could increase people’s risk of type 2 diabetes, study finds
Press release issued: 7 April 2022
People who have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep had higher blood sugar levels than people who rarely had sleep issues, new research has found. The University of Bristol-led findings suggest insomnia could increase people’s risk of type 2 diabetes, and that lifestyle or pharmacological treatments that improve insomnia could help to prevent or treat the condition.
Insomnia, not getting enough sleep, and having a later bedtime, have been linked in previous studies to a greater risk of type 2 diabetes. In this study, the research team assessed whether these associations are explained by causal effects of sleep traits on blood sugar levels
The researchers used a statistical technique called Mendelian Randomization to see how five sleep measures - insomnia, sleep duration, daytime sleepiness, napping and morning or evening preference (chronotype) - were related to average blood sugar levels assessed by a measure called HbA1c levels. Using Mendelian Randomization, which groups people according to a genetic code randomly assigned at birth, allowed the researchers to remove any bias from the results.
The study of over 336,999 adults living in the UK, showed that people who reported that they often had difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep had higher blood sugar levels than people who said they never, rarely, or only sometimes had these difficulties. The research team found no clear evidence for an effect of other sleep traits on blood sugar levels.
The findings could improve researchers understanding of how sleep disturbance influences type 2 diabetes risk. The study also suggests that lifestyle and/or pharmacological interventions that improve insomnia might help to prevent or treat diabetes.
James Liu, Senior Research Associate in the Bristol Medical School (PHS) and MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (IEU) and corresponding author on the paper, said: “We estimated that an effective insomnia treatment could result in more glucose lowering than an equivalent intervention, which reduces body weight by 14kg in a person of average height. This means around 27,300 UK adults, aged between 40- and 70-years-old, with frequent insomnia symptoms would be free from having diabetes if their insomnia was treated.”
Currently, there are some treatments for insomnia. For example, UK guidelines to doctors recommend cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for insomnia, and short-term treatment of sleeping tablets or treatment with a hormone called melatonin if CBT does not work.
Dr Faye Riley is Research Communications Manager at Diabetes UK. She said: “We know from past research that there’s a link between sleep and a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes, but it hasn’t been clear which comes first, bad sleep or higher blood sugars, or if other factors are at play.
“This new study, funded by Diabetes UK, gives us important insights into the direction of the relationship between sleep and type 2 diabetes, suggesting that insufficient sleep can cause higher blood sugars levels and could play a direct role in the development of type 2 diabetes. Knowing this could open up new approaches to help prevent or manage the condition.
“However, it’s important to remember that type 2 diabetes is a complex condition, with multiple risk factors. Eating a healthy balanced diet, being active, along with getting enough sleep, are all essential components of good health for everyone – including those at risk of, or living with, type 2 diabetes.”
Future studies to assess the impact of these insomnia treatments on glucose levels in people with and without diabetes could establish potential new treatments for the prevention and treatment of diabetes.
The study was supported by the Medical Research Council, British Heart Foundation, National Institute for Health and Care Research, Wellcome Trust, US National Institute of Health and a de Pass Vice Chancellors Fellowship from the University of Bristol.
‘Assessing the causal role of sleep traits on glycated haemoglobin: a Mendelian randomization study’ by James Liu, Rebecca C Richmond, Martin K Rutter et al in Diabetes Care.
About Mendelian Randomization
Mendelian randomization is a study that uses genetic variants as instrumental variables to test the causal effect of a (non-genetic) risk factor on a disease or health-related outcome.
About MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit
The MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (IEU) is a research unit based at the University of Bristol with funding from the Medical Research Council. It uses genetics, population data and experimental interventions to look for the underlying causes of chronic disease.
About Diabetes UK
1. Diabetes UK’s aim is creating a world where diabetes can do no harm. Diabetes is the most devastating and fastest growing health crisis of our time, affecting more people than any other serious health condition in the UK - more than dementia and cancer combined. There is currently no known cure for any type of diabetes. With the right treatment, knowledge and support people living with diabetes can lead a long, full and healthy life. For more information about diabetes and the charity’s work, visit www.diabetes.org.uk
2. Diabetes is a condition where there is too much glucose in the blood because the body cannot use it properly. If not managed well, both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can lead to devastating complications. Diabetes is one of the leading causes of preventable sight loss in people of working age in the UK and is a major cause of lower limb amputation, kidney failure and stroke.
3. People with type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin. About 10 per cent of people with diabetes have type 1. No one knows exactly what causes it, but it’s not to do with being overweight and it isn’t currently preventable. It’s the most common type of diabetes in children and young adults, starting suddenly and getting worse quickly. Type 1 diabetes is treated by daily insulin doses – taken either by injections or via an insulin pump. It is also recommended to follow a healthy diet and take regular physical activity.
4. People with type 2 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin or the insulin they produce doesn’t work properly (known as insulin resistance). Around 90 per cent of people with diabetes have type 2. They might get type 2 diabetes because of their family history, age and ethnic background puts them at increased risk. They are also more likely to get type 2 diabetes if they are overweight. It starts gradually, usually later in life, and it can be years before they realise they have it. Type 2 diabetes is treated with a healthy diet and increased physical activity. In addition, tablets and/or insulin can be required.
For more information on reporting on diabetes, download our journalists’ guide: Diabetes in the News: A Guide for Journalists on Reporting on Diabetes (PDF, 3MB)