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An Earlier Bedtime May Prevent Serious Disease

Hayley Dawes
20 January 2023

Recent research from the ZOE research group shows that the quality of sleep can impact blood sugar control and therefore weight and overall health.

As chronic diseases have assumed an increasingly common role in premature death and illness, interest in the role of sleep health in the development and management of chronic diseases has grown. Notably, insufficient sleep has been linked to the development and management of a number of chronic disease and conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. Treat sleep as a priority, rather than a luxury, as this may be an important step in preventing various medical conditions.

Previous research has linked bedtimes to risk of certain conditions, but the mechanisms behind sleep’s links to heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes has been unclear – until now.

Why Does Blood Sugar Control Matter?

Your sleep habits can affect many things about your health – your weight, your immune system, even how well your brain works. But it also plays a key role in controlling your blood sugar (or glucose), which affects your chances of getting diabetes. 

Sleep, diet, and exercise are fundamental to metabolic homeostasis. Good blood sugar control is important for your health. Large spikes and dips in blood sugar, on the other hand, are bad news. When they happen repeatedly, they can put you at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

According to a previous study of over 88,000 people found that your bedtime is linked with your risk of heart disease. The research showed that people who regularly go to bed after 11pm have a 12% high risk of cardiovascular disease than those who go to bed between 10-11pm. Night owls, who usually go to bed after midnight, have a 25% higher risk.

What Happens to Blood Sugar While You Sleep?

It’s tied to whether the hormone insulin, which removes glucose from the blood, is working the way it’s supposed to. Blood sugar levels surge while you’re sleeping. In a healthy person, insulin can handle the surge by telling muscle, fat, and liver cells to absorb the glucose from the blood, which keeps your levels stable. For people who have diabetes or who are likely to get it, insulin can’t do that job very well, so blood sugar levels will rise higher. 

While diet and obesity are big contributors to your odds of having diabetes, studies have found that sleep habits, are, too, probably because over time, they can affect how well your cells respond to insulin.

Other sleep disruptions and disorders, such as sleep apnea, also seem to raise a person’s odds of having diabetes. But the risk goes up at the other end of the spectrum, too. For reasons that aren’t clear, people who sleep too much – more than 9 hours a night – might also have higher chances of getting diabetes.

The Importance of Bedtime Consistency

Sleep efficiency, or how well you sleep, is clearly an important factor. But so is bedtime. People who generally have a later bedtime are less able to control their blood sugar the next morning, even if they sleep in. Going to bed earlier, on the other hand, led to better blood sugar control. This means that you’re better able to control your blood sugar if you go to sleep earlier than you are if you try to catch up on sleep in the morning.

Consistency is key because if you normally go to sleep early, staying up late for even just one night will make your blood sugar control worse the next day. Unhealthy blood sugar responses can add up over time and may be one of the factors that contribute to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Eating The Right Foods Based on Your Sleep 

After a bad or short night’s sleep, it’s natural to crave sugary breakfasts or drinks. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the lack of sleep and sugar interact and the outcome for your blood sugar response is even worse.

Avoid refined cereals, white bread, toast, croissants, and energy drinks. Dr Sarah Berry, a professor of Nutritional Sciences at King’s College London and Chief Scientist at Zoe recommends reaching for foods that are higher in protein and healthy fats, like eggs and sourdough with avocado, rather than refined carbohydrates.

“We now know that controlling blood sugar peaks and dips can have major effects on our body, such as tiredness, hunger, weight gain, and long-term health conditions,” Professor Tim Spector, Zoe co-founder. 

Improving Sleep to Improve Health

Sleep is one of the pillars of good health and is easier to modify than others like exercise. Try to go to bed 30 minutes earlier than you usually would to wind down. Furthermore, be mindful of what you eat for breakfast and consider healthier choices if you’ve slept badly, if you generally go to bed late, or if you’ve stayed up later than usual.

However, everyone is different – you should experiment with your meal timings and sleep patterns to see what works best for you. Simple and small changes to improve your sleep can have major impacts on the way your body responds to food and therefore your health.

Diet and exercise regimes can sometimes be hard to follow, but good sleep hygiene (avoiding caffeine after lunch, sleeping in a quiet, dark, cool room) may be easier to achieve and could deliver significant health benefits.

We all have some sense of the relationship between sleep and our ability to function throughout the day. After all, everyone has experienced the fatigue, bad mood, or lack of focus that so often follow a night of poor sleep. What many people do not realise is that a lack of sleep – especially on a regular basis – is associated with long-term health consequences, including chronic medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, and that these conditions may lead to a shortened life expectancy. Additional research studies show that habitually sleeping more than nine hours is also associated with poor health.