Late to bed, early to rise: a recipe for diabetes

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

For most people, not getting enough sleep isn’t a big deal. So what if you aren’t as sharp as usual the next day, or feel a bit groggy? But sleeping poorly night after night—because you are trying to burn the candle at both ends or you work night or rotating shifts—has long-term health consequences. People who don’t average at least six hours of sleep a night are more likely to be overweight or develop various medical problems, including diabetes, as described earlier on the Harvard Health blog.

Being overweight is a big risk factor for becoming diabetic. Researchers long thought that the poor eating habits that went along with poor sleep were at the root of sleep-related diabetes. With the help of 21 volunteers who lived in a sleep lab for almost six weeks, researchers from Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital have shown that lack of sleep plays an even more complex and powerful role.

Each of the volunteers followed a carefully scheduled daily program of eating, physical activity, and sleeping. They started out well rested, getting 10 hours of sleep a night for the first six nights. Over the next three weeks, they spent just 5.6 hours in bed each night, and it came later and later each day. The schedule was meant to mimic rotating shift work or extended jet lag.

This sleep pattern completely threw off the body’s sleep-wake rhythm, which influences the daily rise and fall of body temperature and blood pressure, and the secretion of many hormones.

During the three weeks of abnormal sleep, the participants’ bodies stopped releasing enough insulin after a meal. Muscles need this hormone to absorb sugar (glucose) from the bloodstream. As a result, their blood sugar levels went haywire. Some of the people had blood sugar levels high enough to have been diagnosed as prediabetic.

At the same time, the volunteers’ rates of metabolism slowed. Because they were eating a controlled diet, they did not gain weight. But if they had eaten as much as they did during the first few days of the study, when they were getting plenty of sleep, the researchers estimated the volunteers would have gained the equivalent of 10 to 12 pounds over a year. The results were reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Improving sleep

We’ve known for some time that being overweight increases the risk of developing diabetes, as does lack of physical activity. This work reported in Science Translational Medicine, by Dr. Orfeu Buxton and his colleagues, offers a look at how poor sleep might lead to type 2 diabetes, the kind most likely to affect older individuals. Sleep troubles have also been linked to the development of high blood pressure, heart disease, and some cancers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 70 million Americans live with chronic sleep problems. Here are a few recommendations for getting more—or better—sleep:

  • Establish a regular bedtime and a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Use your bed only for sleeping or lovemaking. Avoid reading or watching television in bed.
  • If you can’t sleep after 15 to 20 minutes, get out of bed and go into another room. Read quietly with a dim light. Don’t watch television since the light from the TV has an arousing effect. When you feel sleepy, get back into bed. Don’t delay your scheduled wake-up time to make up for lost sleep.
  • Whenever possible, schedule stressful or demanding tasks early in the day and less challenging activities later. This helps to wind down at the end of your day.
  • Limit caffeine; to be on the safe side, don’t have any beyond midafternoon.
  • Avoid alcohol after dinnertime. Although many people think alcohol acts like a sedative, it can actually disrupt your sleep.
  • If you work nights, try wearing yellow- or orange-tinted glasses on the trip home. These block some blue light from reaching your eyes, which can wake you up. Go straight to bed when you get home.

Excellent information on sleep problems, and how to overcome them, is available from the online Sleep and Health Education Program, sponsored by Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine.


  1. jusman

    Good Articles,…

    I can say, I usually sleep for about 5 hours daily and go to bed late, but today, I am going to try to improve my sleep habits… I am afraid.


  2. Gaspard Dakora

    Sleep is very important in our everyday lives and therefore explains why it is good to always pay lots of attention on that aspect. in fact there are many people out there who have often encountered problems such as insomnia simply because they do not know what to do exactly. Paying attention on this aspect therefore can be very useful. Thank you for great information.

  3. Gaspard Dakora

    Diabetes can be very dangerous and for this reason, paying much attention it can be very helpful at the long run. No one should assume this the other way but try as much as possible to do the right thing all the time.

  4. Anonymous

    I believe that exercise will promote good sleeping habits. Find something to do beside snacking and you are good to go.

  5. Anonymous

    I have been sleeping for approx 4 hrs nightly ever since I could remember. I am 55 now and have had diabetes for 10 years now and my sleeping habits are still the same. I am also not overweight as a matter of fact I am 6’1 and 170lbs.
    But I believe that exercise will promote good sleeping habits. Find something to do beside snacking and you are good to go.

  6. Amanda Dell

    Many of our residents have diabetes and have had a life that led them to be late to bed and early to rise. Hopefully, we can make this into an actionable plan to help people avoid diabetes as they age.

    Amanda Dell

  7. shawn

    t is so important to be light on your feet, inquisitive and interested in being wrong. You have that wonderful fascination with the what if questions, but you also need absolute focus and a keen insight into the context and what is important – that is really terribly important. It’s about contradictions you have to navigate.

  8. richard

    Your post has a good article.I liked your post.

  9. strakke buik


    Thanks for all the tips, they are very usefull. Usually i do a workout with kettlebels about half an hour before i go to sleep.
    It’s perfect to fall to sleep.

  10. Tawitri

    I only slept 2 hours / day. This condition has lasted almost 5 years. whether I am in danger of being exposed to diabetic? I had been feeling in good health and no significant physical decline.

  11. Paul

    I know what it is like to work shifts .I did this for over 10 years, 12hrs. on,12hrs off. You are right how it upset sleep. The other down side is the effect it has on family life.

  12. Sapphire

    Thank you for the informative post. It just shows how tightly interconnected our bodily systems are. An imbalance in one can easily disrupt another which is linked to it. And thanks for the good sleeping tips too. If I may add, I find using a sleep sound machine to be quite useful because I live in a high rise building that faces highways. If noise is disrupting your sleep, you should try one.


    I have personally measured my glucose for the past several years to see what the effects of food types on glucose, but one thing that came out of all my studies, is that good sleep improves your glucose control, just by itself. Good sleep lowers fasting glucose and all measurements throughout the day. Lack of sleep results with your fasting glucose in the morning being as much as 10 to 15 mg/dL higher than if you got good sleep. so I’m not surprised your article finds that sleep plays a primary role in diabetes / organ health.

  14. Mohamed Ali Tawfeek

    Thanks very much for these information , i was sleep for about just about 5 hours daily and go to bed late, but now, i will try to improve my sleep habits.Thanks

  15. Harmonizer

    Thanks for the update. I really appreciate the efforts you have made for this blog.

  16. Patrick Steenwijk

    It seems that i need to improve my sleeping a lot.
    I need to sleep more than my average of 6 hours.
    Fortunately im not overweight, but i do need to watch this.
    Thank you for sharing these tips

  17. James Clark

    Thanks for sharing good tips on sleep here as our body needs sleep to repair its self and not getting enough sleep we are inviting obesity problem, heart attack, stress, strokes, mental disease.

  18. Jake

    That is interesting

  19. nando eriawan

    I’m scared about my condition now. I just sleep about 3 hours, then study 2 hours, and then sleep again for 1 hour. am I going to get diabetic? help me…, If so, the best thing is get more sleep to reduce the risk of diabetic

  20. Anonymous

    I didn’t know all this. Sometimes we work on two jobs or even three. I am sticking to your advice and thank you so much for the great article.

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