Current research in Van Cauter’s laboratory focuses on the impact of decreases in sleep duration and quality on the risk of obesity and diabetes and the interaction of sleep loss with metabolic aging.
During the past few decades, sleep curtailment has become a very common behavior in industrialized countries. The aging of the population is associated with an increased prevalence of sleep disturbances. These trends for shorter sleep duration and poorer sleep quality have developed over the same time period as the dramatic increase in the prevalence of obesity and diabetes.
Our laboratory studies in healthy young volunteers have shown that experimental sleep restriction is associated with an adverse impact on glucose homeostasis and with a dysregulation of the neuroendocrine control of appetite, with decreased leptin and increased ghrelin levels, consistent with a risk of overeating and weight gain. Insulin sensitivity decreases rapidly and markedly when either sleep duration or sleep quality is reduced experimentally without adequate compensation in beta cell function, resulting in an elevated risk of diabetes. These findings are consistent with evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies in both children and adults. Ongoing studies explore mechanistic pathways linking short or poor sleep to diabetes risk, examine age differences in the impact of sleep loss on metabolic function and define the impact of circadian misalignment, as occurs in shift work, on diabetes risk. The role of sleep disturbances, particularly sleep-disturbed breathing, in the severity and progression of diabetes and of chronic kidney disease is another area of enquiry.