You might have read the title of this post and incredulously wondered how on earth one night of poor sleep equals six months on a high-fat diet. Well, it all has to do with our insulin sensitivity. Insulin is a type of hormone that helps keep our blood sugar levels from getting too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia).
According to a study conducted by Josiane Broussard, PhD, and colleagues from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, one night of bad sleep lowers our body’s sensitivity to insulin in a similar degree as six months on a high-fat diet.
When the body becomes less sensitive to insulin or “insulin resistant,” it’s unable to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar stable. This may eventually lead to Type 2 diabetes, a disease where there is too much sugar in the blood and the body’s insulin response doesn’t work properly.
Diabetes is associated with a number of serious health complications, including heart disease. The less sensitive you are to the effects of insulin, the more trouble you have absorbing nutrients, digesting carbohydrates, and maintaining a healthy weight.
People who have a hard time maintaining a healthy weight or those with obesity are prone to develop insulin resistance and subsequently diabetes. It’s a terrible, vicious cycle that could all start with one night of poor sleep.
How poor sleep affects insulin sensitivity
In the study led by Dr Broussard, the researchers used a canine model to investigate whether sleep deprivation and high-fat diets affect insulin sensitivity in similar ways. They measured insulin sensitivity in eight male dogs before and after the dogs were fed a high-fat diet for six months. The researchers found that the dogs that were sleep deprived for one night had a decrease of 33 percent in insulin sensitivity. After being fed a high-fat diet, the canines had a 21 percent decrease.
Although this study was done on animals and not humans, it is sill relevant. These types of basic scientific studies involving canines are common and play a critical role in helping to understand the causes and complications of obesity, as well as in identifying processes that may help with its prevention or cure. What this particular study, which was presented on November 5 at The Obesity Society Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, highlights is that pulling all-nighters is not good for the body.
“It is critical for health practitioners to emphasize the importance of sleep to their patients,” said Caroline M. Apovian, MD, FACP, FACN, a Fellow and spokesperson for The Obesity Society. “Many patients understand the importance of a balanced diet, but they might not have a clear idea of how critical sleep is to maintaining equilibrium in the body.”
Ramifications of sleep deprivation
Dr. Broussard noted that, “One night of sleep deprivation and six months of a high-fat diet both reduced insulin sensitivity by a similar degree in canines. However, there was no additive effect of sleep loss and high-fat diet.” Relating these findings to humans, Dr. Broussard added: “This [study] may suggest a similar mechanism by which both insufficient sleep and a high-fat diet induce insulin resistance. It could also mean that after high-fat feeding, insulin sensitivity cannot be reduced further by sleep loss.”
Perhaps referring to numerous other studies (and there have been many this year) that have correlated the ramifications of sleep deprivation on insulin sensitivity, Dr. Broussard said: “Research has shown that sleep deficiency and a high-fat diet both lead to impaired insulin sensitivity, but it was previously unknown which leads to more severe insulin resistance.”
“Our study,” he continued, “suggests that one night of total sleep deprivation may be as detrimental to insulin sensitivity as six months on a high-fat diet. This research demonstrates the importance of adequate sleep in maintaining blood sugar levels and reducing risk for metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes.”
If there is one thing you can take away from this study, it is that you should take your sleep habits seriously. Get enough sleep each night, 7 to 9 hours at least. And if you think missing one hour or one night of sleep is not a big deal, then think again. Another study showed how seven Type 1 diabetics suffered peripheral insulin resistance after just one night of four hours sleep.
The good news, though, is that some of the damage caused by sleep deprivation (such as decreased insulin sensitivity and other metabolic issues) can be reversed with recovery sleep. So, go to bed a half-hour earlier to pay your sleep debt. And tuck in by a reasonable hour every night for sleep.