Adults who sleep only three to five hours a day are at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a new study, which also shows that chronic sleep deprivation cannot be compensated by healthy eating alone.    

The study from Uppsala University is published in JAMA Network Open.

Lead researcher Christian Benedict, PhD, associate professor and sleep researcher at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences at Uppsala University, and a team examined the link between type 2 diabetes and sleep deprivation. Type 2 diabetes affects the body’s ability to process sugar (glucose), hindering insulin absorption and resulting in high blood sugar levels. Over time, it can cause serious damage, particularly to nerves and blood vessels.

“Previous research has shown that repeated short daily rest increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, while healthy dietary habits such as regularly eating fruit and vegetables can reduce the risk. However, it has remained unclear whether people who sleep too little can reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by eating healthily,” says Diana Noga, a sleep researcher at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences at Uppsala University, in a release.

The researchers therefore used data from one of the largest population databases in the world, the UK Biobank, in which nearly half a million participants from the UK have been genetically mapped and responded to questions on health and lifestyle. They followed the participants for over 10 years and found that a sleep duration of between three and five hours was linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

In contrast, healthy eating habits led to a lower risk of developing the disease, but even people who ate healthily but slept fewer than six hours a day were still at higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

“Our results are the first to question whether a healthy diet can compensate for lack of sleep in terms of the risk of type 2 diabetes. They should not cause concern but instead be seen as a reminder that sleep plays an important role in health,” says Benedict in a release.

He also argues that the effects of sleep deprivation vary between individuals, depending on aspects such as genetics and a person’s actual need for sleep.

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