Lack of sleep can alter genes

Many studies have documented a connection between sleep loss and poor health and recognize that sleep deprivation contributes to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity. A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was the first of its kind to analyze the affect of sleep loss at the molecular level. The findings? It turns out that sleep deprivation alters hundreds of genes involved with inflammation, immunity and cells’ response to stress.

Completed by the University of Surrey, the study took whole-blood RNA samples from 26 participants. For one week, half of them slept for over 8 hours a night, and the other half had less than 6 hours of sleep. During the second week, the participants switched. At the end of the two weeks, both groups were kept awake for 40 hours straight and underwent regular blood and cognitive tests during this time.

The group that was well-rested during the second week of the study recovered from the sleepless 40 hours and had no signs of cell damage.  The sleep deprived group, however, showed alterations in 711 genes– all related to circadian rhythms, metabolism, inflammation, immune response and stress. As Colin Smith, genomist at the University of Surrey explains, “Precisely the genes required to make new proteins and new cells were inhibited. The ability to restore the balance in their bodies was upset. That nurturing and self-renewal that sleep brings is not happening.”

While it is good news that catching up on sleep helps to repair gene damage, more research is required to determine how long one can endure sleep deprivation before the effects become permanent.

In must industrialized countries, including Canada, about 30% of the population does not get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye each night. Sleeping well comes with a plethora of health benefits, and we can now add protecting your genes to the list.