SAN DIEGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – A sleep specialist told an audience of diabetes educators that quality sleep is “profoundly important” to the health of their patients, and regularly sleeping fewer than 7 hours a night can wreak havoc on glucose levels and insulin resistance.

There’s even evidence of a link between lack of sleep, diabetes, and heart disease, according to Terese C. Hammond, MD , medical director of the Keck Hospital of the University of Southern California Sleep Disorders Center in Los Angeles. “We don’t know which way the cause goes, but we know there’s a connection,” she said.

Dr. Hammond, who spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of Diabetes Educators, noted that the vast majority of adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night.

If you repeatedly don’t reach 7 hours, “there is ample evidence that some metabolic and biologic things happen to your body. Glucose goes up and insulin is secreted. Leptin decreases – the protein that tells us when we’re sated, when our hunger is satisfied. It’s a pretty potent combination, and this is associated with increases in weight and carbohydrate intake,” Dr. Hammond said.

Indeed, findings from one small study suggest a link between chronic insufficient sleep to consumption of more calories, mostly carbohydrates. The study authors speculated this may be because people eat extra food to account for being awake more but take in more than they need ( Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2013 Apr;110[14]:5695-700 ).

It is possible for people to pay off a “sleep debt” by catching up on sleep, Dr. Hammond said, but only if the sleep is lost temporarily, as during a heavy medical rotation or after a personal tragedy. When sleep loss is chronic, she said, “it’s becoming apparent that the end-organ consequences are not fully recoverable.”

In regard to diabetes specifically, she said, research has linked insufficient sleep to higher rates of central obesity, higher rates of diabetes in blacks and whites, impaired glucose tolerance, decreased insulin, metabolic syndrome, and high lipids. Too much sleep has also been linked to poor health outcomes.

How can medical professionals help patients improve sleep? “The most important thing to remember about sleep is that it’s a very primitive process,” according to Dr. Hammond. “You can’t think yourself into better sleep. You have to act yourself into better sleep through light, temperature, sound, and repetitive behaviors.”

Controversial research has linked sleeping pills to higher mortality rates, she says.“I try to avoid them long term for insomnia, and not only because there’s probably an increased risk. They stop working eventually.”

Another approach, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is “the most potent way to change behavior,” she said.

“CBT improves sleep efficiency in a vast majority of chronic medical diseases,” she said. “It does just as well as drugs and better than most sleeping pills.”

According to Dr. Hammond, CBT focuses on several strategies:

• Education about sleep hygiene, such as limiting the bedroom to nighttime sleep and intimacy, going to bed at the same time every night, and focusing on a dark, cool, quiet environment.

• Increasing the “sleep drive” through temporary sleep deprivation.

• Relaxation training through techniques like guided imagery, biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, and self-hypnosis.

Dr. Hammond reported having no relevant financial disclosures.