May 31, 2023

Untangling the role of sleep in blood sugar and brain health

Many studies seek to explore the relationship between two things, with researchers working painstakingly to filter out the effects of everything else. Not Christian Benedict’s latest study, funded as part of the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Research Leader Programme. He and his team are throwing their net wide, gathering as much data as possible on the most basic human functions – eating, sleeping, moving, even defecating – to better understand how these interact with blood glucose control.

“There are many components in the equation underlying the body’s capacity to keep blood glucose in normal range,” says Christian Benedict, Associate Professor of Pharmacology at Uppsala University in Sweden. “And everything acts on each other. Something that we do during the day can mess up our sleep, which then messes up our metabolic control the next day, including blood sugar regulation. So you get into this vicious cycle.” 

It is that cycle and the complex web of factors acting on it that Christian hopes to elucidate. His initial focus is sleep, but even there, his approach is uniquely holistic. Most studies into sleep and blood glucose control look at the impact of an individual component, such as slow-wave sleep (the deepest kind) or sleep duration, and often only over one or two nights.  

“Instead, we’ll be trying to evaluate sleep patterns more holistically and make a comprehensive evaluation of how different sleep components contribute to twenty-four-hour blood sugar control,” he says. “And, of course, also investigate which of the components is maybe the most decisive, because that’s interesting from a therapeutic point of view.” 

Using tech to gather real-world data
Blood glucose levels that regularly rise above the norm can have serious consequences – impairing cardiac functions, accelerating cognitive aging (making conditions such as Alzheimer’s more likely) and increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. 

Christian Benedict will study individuals who have overweight or obesity and are therefore already at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. His goal is to disentangle the role of various sleep components and identify if and how sleep improvements could help stave off diabetes as well as the cardiovascular and cognitive problems that can arise from elevated blood sugar. 

He and his team will monitor 240 individuals over two weeks each, using state-of-the-art, non-intrusive technology to gather data on glucose levels, motion, and light exposure as well as sleep-related data, including brain activity, body movement, oxygen levels and breathing patterns. 

He is excited at the prospect of gathering so much real-world information. 

“Research like this is often lab-based,” he says. “Or it’s real-world but crude, where you ask people, ‘how did you sleep the last two weeks?’ Now we can let them live their daily life and track all these different parameters – and then try to join the dots.” 

According to Christian Benedict, this is made possible by recent leaps forward in wearables and light sensors, as well as the nature of the Research Leader Programme grant, which is unusual in awarding up to DKK 10 million for a five-year project – a larger sum and longer period than many other awards.  

He and his team will receive DKK 9.3 million over five years and will start their project in January 2024. 

“It’s very exciting because it will produce so much data,” he says. “My small researcher heart is beating very fast!” 

 A treasure trove for the future
Christian Benedict began his research career looking at diabetes and is now a leading sleep researcher, combining both areas of expertise in this pioneering study. 

During the last decade, he has seen a growing understanding and acceptance of the importance of sleep among both clinicians and health-related organisations, and he hopes that any new insights from this work will filter through, both to those already suffering the effects of chronically elevated blood sugar and anyone who wants to live a healthy life. 

“While sleep will never substitute medication in the treatment of diseases such as diabetes, it can be a nice add-on,” he says. 

He also envisions a treasure trove of data that can be mined by himself and other researchers with an interest in sleep, physical activity, or blood glucose.  

“It’s exciting to do something that gives so many insights and so many opportunities to play around,” he says. “We will have infinite options to design intervention studies based on this data.” 

 DKK 361 million awarded 
The Foundation’s Research Leader Programme funds daring and innovative project ideas that may lead to significant scientific breakthroughs. The five-year grants are awarded to talented researchers at different stages of their careers.  

A total of DKK 361 million has been awarded to 37 researchers in the 2023 round. Christian Benedict is one of 15 Ascending Investigators to receive an award, granted to research leaders at the associate professor level in the process of consolidating their research group and profile. 

In total, the Foundation has now awarded more than DKK 2 billion to more than 200 researchers through the Programme since it was established in 2018. 

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Further information
Christian Mostrup, Head of Press, Novo Nordisk Foundation,, +45 3067 4805