Food and Behaviour Research

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19 February 2015 - EurekAlert - New study helps explain links between sleep loss and diabetes

Lack of sleep can elevate levels of free fatty acids in the blood, accompanied by temporary pre-diabetic conditions in healthy young men, according to new research.

The study, the first to examine the impact of sleep loss on 24-hour fatty acid levels in the blood, adds to emerging evidence that insufficient sleep--a highly prevalent condition in modern society--may disrupt fat metabolism and reduce the ability of insulin to regulate blood sugars. It suggests that something as simple as getting enough sleep could help counteract the current epidemics of diabetes and obesity.

The researchers found that after three nights of getting only four hours of sleep, blood levels of fatty acids, which usually peak and then recede overnight, remained elevated from about 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. As long as fatty acid levels remained high, the ability of insulin to regulate blood sugars was reduced.

Cutting back on sleep prolonged nighttime growth hormone secretion and led to an increase in noradrenaline in the blood, both of which contributed to the increase in fatty acid levels.

Although glucose levels were unchanged, the ability of available insulin to regulate blood glucose levels decreased by about 23 percent after a short sleep, "suggesting," the authors note, "an insulin-resistant state."

"This study opens the door to several intriguing questions," according to a Commentary in the journal by sleep specialists Jonathan Jun, MD, and Vsevolod Polotsky, MD, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Could variations in individual responses to short sleep explain susceptibility to metabolic consequences? Could dysregulation of fatty acid metabolism represent a common pathway linking various sleep disorders to metabolic syndrome? And why don't clinicians routinely ask their patients about sleep?