Sleep Problems and Diabetes

My children are deep sleepers. When I go into their dark rooms in the morning to wake them for school, I rub their shoulders or tickle their feet, and they don’t budge. I often have to turn on the bright overhead light to wake them. They’ll open their groggy eyes and look at me as if I’ve pulled them from deep dreams. They’ll stumble to the bathroom to relieve their bladder that hasn’t been emptied all night. I look at them longingly, wishing I could sleep that deeply.

Most nights I wake up at least once to pee. On good nights, I can fall right back to sleep, but more often I lie in bed tossing and turning, trying to breathe deeply and ignore the thoughts that start creeping into my head (“remember to make the orthodontist appointment… we’re out of milk… don’t forget to submit that article for deadline!”). I try not to look at the clock because I know it will stress me out to know I’ve been awake for 30 minutes or more. I try to visualize my happy place and let sleep come.

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Some nights it’s not my bladder that wakes me, but my blood sugar. The other night I woke up, slid my legs over the side of the bed, slipped my feet into my slippers, and saw stars. Greenish-yellow flashes of lights beneath my eyelids that only appear when my blood sugar is low. I stumbled to the kitchen to test my blood sugar (it was one of those lows when I was holding my monitor in my hand, staring it, knowing I was supposed to do something with it, but not sure what that something was). The number that flashed on the screen was 41mg/dl.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny that whenever I’m low, the first thing I do is test, not treat. You’d think my instinct would be to reach for my glucose tabs, but for some reason I always test first. I think it’s another example of my inability to trust my body’s signals. Or else it’s the fear of making a wrong assumption and ending up with a high blood sugar.

A good night’s sleep is like energy in a bottle. When I wake up after having slept almost through the night, I feel invincible. When I wake up after a bad night’s sleep, I dread the day ahead. Studies show that quality sleep improves memory, sharpens attention, spurs creativity, lowers stress, and helps people maintain a healthy weight. On the flip side, ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and stroke. Sleep disturbances occur in roughly 70 million American adults, whether they have diabetes or not. The recommended amount of sleep is at least 7 hours a night, but about 40% get less than seven hours.

Google “sleep problems” and you’ll get plenty of articles with tips on ways to improve your sleep: avoid caffeine after lunch, don’t bring your phone into your bedroom, use a fan or a white noise machine, get a good mattress, try deep breathing and meditation… the list is extensive. For those of us with diabetes, we need to add: ALWAYS test blood sugar before bed.

But what about those times when our blood sugar drops in the middle of the night and we can’t go back to sleep because our bodies are sped up with the adrenaline of treating a scary low, and our mind is filled with those terrible, negative voices that are saying: What if you didn’t wake up? I wish I had the answer. No matter how vigilant we are, there are always going to be those (hopefully rare) nights when our blood sugar drops and we’re standing alone in the middle of the kitchen while our children are sleeping soundly, and we’re wide awake.

Want to learn more about sleeping well with diabetes? Read “Getting the Sleep You Need,” “Getting to Sleep and Staying There,” and “Have Diabetes? Can’t Sleep? Don’t Eat These Tonight.”