February 26, 2013

Sleep Deprivation Alters Genes.

Photo: Sdminor

We’ve known for years that getting less than six hours of sleep a night is bad for us—but new scientific research shows it might also be bad for our genes.

I hopped on the BBC website this morning and saw that one of the top articles was on bad sleep being even worse for our bodies than we already thought.

When I searched the internet a little bit more, I saw that this UK research has indeed hit all of the mainstream news sources, and I think it’s pretty obvious why.

Poor sleeping habits seem to be ubiquitous these days.

I’m the mother of a the most wonderful little girl you ever met. Seriously, she’s amazing (and reminds me to be happy every day). However, she doesn’t like to sleep—and when your toddler doesn’t sleep neither do you. So this topic strongly interests me. I know from unfortunate firsthand experience that sleep deprivation is horrendous for physical, mental and emotional functioning, but I didn’t know it was bad for my genes too.

Why is gene alteration like this important?

The article states that:

“heart disease, diabetes, obesity and poor brain function have all been linked to substandard sleep.

What missing hours in bed actually does to alter health, however, is unknown.

So researchers at the University of Surrey analysed the blood of 26 people after they had had plenty of sleep, up to 10 hours each night for a week, and compared the results with samples after a week of fewer than six hours a night.

More than 700 genes were altered by the shift. Each contains the instructions for building a protein, so those that became more active produced more proteins—changing the chemistry of the body.”

We know that many illnesses that we still don’t fully understand are linked to the immune system, and among these over 700 disrupted genes, the immune system was strongly affected. Even diabetes (already linked to poor sleep) is now also linked to the immune system.

We know that not getting enough zzz’s is bad for us. We also know that autoimmune disorders are sometimes difficult to not only diagnose but to treat, much less cure. Linking something as significant and seemingly insignificant as sleep to our bodies gene (and immune system) health is a huge step in understanding these diseases—and understanding their preventions.

Begin making healthy sleeping habits important in your daily life by making small changes that help lead to a good night’s rest. Here’s a list of basic tips:

1. Don’t check your phone or the internet before trying to fall asleep. Research has already found a link between pre-slumber internet usage and bad sleep.

2. If you absolutely cannot fall asleep, then get back up, keep the lights low, and read something relaxing until you feel tired enough to try heading back to bed. Similar to the first tip, reading something that doesn’t make you anxious might help your ability to fall back asleep rather than inhibiting it.

3. Stop consuming caffeine in the early afternoon.

4. Limit your alcohol intake. 

5. Sleep in a cool but not cold room.

Poor sleeping habits are often just that: bad habits that you need to practice changing into good ones. Still, there are legitimate sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea) that demand medical attention. Don’t delay getting help any longer if you know you have a sleep-related concern.

Sleep is rejuvenating. It’s the fountain of youth for a healthy body, a healthy mind and, apparently, for healthy genes.

I’ll leave you with the words of the Dalai Lama: “Sleep is the best meditation.”

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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

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