Sleep and the 'Betes

Focusing on an essential element of a healthy lifestyle.

straightup-hiresSTRAIGHT UP

with Amy Tenderich


Editor's Note: While this columnist is no longer writing for and we have ceased to update the information contained herein, there is much to be read here that is still applicable to the lives of people with diabetes. If you wish to act on anything you learn here, be sure to consult your doctor first. Please enjoy the column!

February 2008 —To my mind (and my body), there's nothing worse than sleep deprivation. I'm quite convinced that my diagnosis with type 1 diabetes in 2003 was a direct result of not sleeping through the night for six years running – the only real downside of having my three beautiful children. I just can't handle that kind of exhaustion. Over the last four and half years living with diabetes, it's become glaringly obvious to me that getting enough sleep is still Numero Uno priority to my health.

Ironically, before I had kids, I was always a poor sleeper – a light sleeper, that is, who would wake at the slightest commotion, and would often lie wide awake for hours in the frustrating pursuit of rest. In college, I had lots of nights of just two or three hours of sleep at most.

Then I became a mother, and everything changed. Infants are oblivious to your REM cycle. Toddlers don't know from circadian rhythms. My sleep was interrupted so often that I became, in a word, a "nervous wreck." Many evenings I and was so aware that I'd be jarred awake by a yelling child any moment that I often experienced heart palpitations at bedtime. Even when things were quiet, I'd lie awake in anticipation. A good night's rest became the Pot of Gold at the end of the rainbow.

It wasn't until our third daughter turned two years old that my husband and I got a taste of that gold. Nowadays – knock on wood – all three girls generally sleep peacefully through the night. Not surprisingly, I feel 10 years younger, 100% more energetic, and am doing almost a whole percentage point better on my A1c levels.

But lately, a strange thing has happened: I seem to have returned to my pre-parenting restless-sleep habits. Suddenly I find myself waking up around 3am night after night, wide awake. I start thinking about checklists and deadlines and permission slips and emails that need sending, and I'm struggling to fall back to sleep for hours. Ugh!

At my most paranoid, I start to wonder if I'm suffering from sleep apnea, a condition commonly associated with diabetes? But sleep apnea actually involves repeated halts in your breathing throughout the night that cause you to wake up choking or gasping. People with this disorder often experience a host of secondary symptoms, including headaches, sore throat, dry mouth, and waking up in a sweat. I can't say that this is the case for me – except of course, for the sweating part once in a while, which is a common symptom of nighttime hypoglycemia. A simple blood glucose check with my meter confirms that every time.

I hope and pray that my sleep troubles are just a short-term glitch. Still, the bad news appears to be that sleep problems are cumulative. "The more sleep we lose, the worse our sleep problems get," according to the non-profit medical resource HelpGuide. "Even if you are getting some sleep every night, you may not be getting as many hours as you need. Being deprived of even just a few hours of sleep each night can create a "sleep debt", a more serious stage of sleep deprivation." I've learned that a chronic sleep debt can have serious long-term effects, including immune system problems, metabolic changes that can lead to weight control issues, and hyperactivity.

Ugh again. All I know for sure is that without adequate sleep, our bodies function at half-speed and tire out quickly. The experts say most adults need their requisite 8 hours a night, but we aren't getting them. Today, most Americans sleep as little as six hours a night or less. This isn't because of any sleep disorders, but because of the hectic lifestyles we lead.

Too little sleep can cause a laundry list of problems: lowered insulin sensitivity, impaired memory, concentration, and ability to learn, physical impairment, poor coordination, delayed reaction time, anxiety, depression, and other emotional problems, and even a "magnification of the effects of alcohol on the body." Imagine what this does to your diabetes management!

Meanwhile, if my current sleep problem is not a formal malady, then why aren't I sleeping well?

I dunno. I think maybe I've just been waiting too long to settle down after a busy day, and the "over stimulation" is keeping me awake. Thus, my personal short list of Notes to Self Regarding Sleep --

  • DO NOT surf the Internet until way past midnight just because it's just so fascinating and you "don't feel sleepy."
  • DO NOT get up out of bed in the middle of the night to work or read just because you happened to wake up briefly. Let your mind roll over whatever it will, but remain horizontal at all costs.
  • DO NOT fall into bed before 9:30pm just because that extra glass of wine made you feel dopey; you'll be bright awake at 3am. Instead, shake it off and stay awake till you're sober before settling down for the night.
  • DO take a hot shower before bed to relax the Bod.
  • DO read a novel or something else light and entertaining before going to sleep (preferably in bed), in order to get your mind off all the daily "to-do's."
  • DO take a melatonin supplement now and then when you're really desperate for a good night's sleep.

Naturally, these wholly un-scientific suggestions aren't for everyone. They're just my personal way of being proactive about something that is quite possibly the most essential element of a healthy lifestyle – extra-specially when you have the ‘betes.

* Amy Tenderich is co-author of the new book, Know Your Numbers, Outlive Your Diabetes.

Read more about Amy Tenderich.


dLife's Viewpoints columnists are not all medical experts, but everyday people living with diabetes and sharing their personal experiences, most often at a set point in time. While their method of diabetes management may work for them, everyone is different. Please consult with your diabetes care team before acting on anything you read here to find out what will work best for you.

Last Modified Date: July 08, 2013

All content on is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.
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