Can Lack of Sleep Affect Your Genes?

Are you one of the myriad people worldwide who doesn’t get seven to nine hours of sleep at night? New research shows you may be negatively affecting hundreds of genes in your body and predisposing yourself to some serious health conditions.

About half of the US population doesn’t get enough sleep; of the people who say they don’t need more than five or six hours of sleep every night, fewer than one percent actually have a gene variant that makes this belief a reality.

A study conducted by the Surrey Sleep Research Centre and published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) monitored healthy volunteers who got 8.5 hours of sleep one week and 5.7 hours of sleep the next week. Blood tests after each week showed that participants who slept less than six hours experienced changes to 711 RNA genes, which play an important part in making proteins—the affected genes were associated with stress, inflammation, and disease-fighting ability. These changes could lead to a variety of health issues including:

  • cognitive decline
  • depression
  • compromised immunity
  • diabetes
  • obesity
  • increased risk of tumors
  • cardiovascular disease

Sleep is a natural and powerful way for our bodies to detoxify, allowing beta-amyloid plaque—a biomarker of Alzheimer’s disease—to clear from the brain. The National Institute on Aging states that the particularly toxic beta-amyloid 42 is found in abnormally high levels and disrupts cell function in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s.

An interesting peer-reviewed study published in Anaesthesia (journal of the Association of Anaesthetists) studied the impact of sleep deprivation, broken sleep, and shift work on on-call healthy doctors. Blood tests revealed that “overnight on‐site call participants had lower baseline DNA repair gene expression and more DNA breaks than participants who did not work overnight.”

The study concluded that shift workers who experience sleep deprivation are at a higher risk for health problems. Disrupted sleep can cause DNA damage, which the study shows can then lead to chronic disease. Dr. Siu-Wai Choi, senior author of the study, stated that these results indicate that even one night of sleep deprivation “can trigger events that may contribute to the development of chronic disease.”

Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep or experiencing broken sleep can negatively impact your immune system, making you vulnerable to a number of illnesses. In fact, inconsistent sleep or lack of sleep can damage your immune system as much as stress, which is also impacted by the disruption of genes caused by poor sleep. When it comes to stress, problems with sleep work two ways: stress can cause sleep problems, and sleep problems can make us react more negatively to stressful situations. However, not getting sufficient sleep actually causes hormonal changes in our bodies, among the effects of which is longer-lasting anxiety, depression, and less of an ability to deal with emotional difficulties.

An article published by the National Institutes of Health titled “Sleep and immune function” states that “sleep and the circadian system exert a strong regulatory influence on immune functions.” Our natural circadian rhythm regulates our wake-sleep cycle and responds mainly to the cycle of light and dark in our environment. When the light-dark cycle is disrupted, our circadian rhythm is also disrupted, throwing our sleep patterns out of whack. If this happens on a regular basis, the important biological functions governed by sleep are also thrown off, which can result in a number of potential health risks from cognitive and psychiatric disorders to autoimmune problems, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. Common causes to sleep disruption that affect the body’s circadian rhythm include the use of cell phones, computers, and watching TV in bed or right up to bedtime. You can avoid this by shutting off devices and TV at least an hour or more before you retire.

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