Lack of sleep may disrupt genes

Getting too little sleep can play havoc with our health, say some experts, and the biggest cause of this disruption by far is snoring.

Sleeping for fewer than six hours for several nights in a row affects hundreds of genes in our bodies and it is these genes that are responsible for keeping us in good health, says a new study. Research led by the Surrey Sleep Research Centre has found that people who were subjected to sleep deprivation for a week underwent physical changes at a molecular level that could affect their wellbeing seriously if they continued for the long term

Sleep disorders are common in industrialised nations, with between 10% and 20% of the European and US population reporting frequent sleep disruption. Insufficient sleep and disruption to the sleep-wake cycle – which is known as the circadian rhythm – are known to have a damaging effect on health, but the reasons behind this remain largely unexplored.

Details of the Laboratory sleep tests

Although relatively small, this study could be of major importance and it involved a group of healthy adults -14 men and 12 women. All those taking part in the study were allowed to sleep under laboratory conditions for 5.7 hours one week and 8.5 hours another week.

After each of the two seven day periods, whole blood samples were collected from each individual and a specific analysis carried out. This involved the analysis of RNA – correctly called messenger RNA, and this plays a vital role in making proteins. These samples allowed the researchers to examine what is happening to the RNA in the blood, brain and liver.

Professor Derk-Jan Dijk and his colleagues at the Surrey Sleep centre found that volunteers who got less than six hours sleep each night over the course of a week experienced changes to as many as 711 RNA genes that are linked to inflammation, fighting disease and stress. These changes, just due to one week’s sleep deprivation, might have a major impact on obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and brain function if they continue in the long term. The data suggest several ways by which sleep restriction and disruption of the circadian rhythm may be linked to negative health outcomes and there is evidence that the circadian rhythm could be one general pathway by which sleep restriction leads to major health problems.

The findings appear in detail in the journal PNAS.

Obesity and diabetes

Commenting on the study, Professor Adrian Williams, who is Professor of Sleep Medicine at King’s College, London tells us that people should not be unduly concerned about how much sleep they are getting. “Individuals are individuals,” he says. “As a Society we often sleep an extra two hours at the weekend to make up for a lack of sleep during the week – in this 24/7 society – so probably we tend to sleep less than we need to, but it’s very individual – so people shouldn’t be unduly worried.”

However, Professor Williams says he believes that “sleep deprivation or sleep interruption is a drive to diabetes and obesity – and, of course, linked to these is high blood pressure and heart disease,” he says.

Restrict snoring goes a long way to solving this problem in men, women and even children.

Professor Jim Horne from the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University tells us: “The potential perils of ‘sleep debt’ in today’s society and the need for ‘eight hours sleep a night’ are overplayed and can cause undue concern.”

He explains: “Although this important study seems to support this concern, the participants had their sleep suddenly restricted to an unusually low level, which must have been somewhat stressful.  “We must be careful not to generalise such findings to, say, habitual six-hour sleepers who are happy with their sleep.  Besides, sleep can adapt to some change, and should also be judged on its quality, not simply on its total amount.”

The key to healthy sleep is the quality and not the duration according to many of the leading experts so disruption should be avoided wherever necessary. If you snore, you should take steps now to resolve the problem, as the effects are serious and far-reaching as far as your health is concerned.
By John Redfern