Sleep and your DNA: How Sleep Deprivation Effects your Health

Sleep and your DNA: How Sleep Deprivation Effects your Health

by Claudia Ghezzou Cuervas-Mons

"Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies Which busy care draws in the brains of men; Therefore thou sleep'st so sound."

William Shakespeare

Oh sleep, Shakespeare knew!

Sleep is one of the most important and natural things we as human beings have and don’t take enough advantage of. It’s free and gives our minds a break from the stresses of day to day life. Strangely enough, the majority of people in this day and age aren’t getting enough of it. When you discover the detrimental effects that lack of sleep can have on our health, it begs the question why?

As we all know, sleep is a naturally occurring, complex, and evolutionary process that affects almost every tissue, system and muscle in the body, through specific cycles and stages. It allows us to rest, recover from the activities of the day and restore. Sleep is as essential to us as water and food. We use it to transfer information and our experiences into our long term memory. Without proper sleep, we’re unable to process and hold onto those memories, which in turn affects our performance.

Unhealthy routines, such as bingeing on social media just before bedtime and habitual use of stimulants and antidepressants, means that in the US alone one-third of the population are not getting sufficient sleep. In addition, we’re repeatedly warned about the effects of the blue light on our screens keeping our brain awake at night and yet 90% of Americans continue to use some type of electronic device at least a few nights a week one-hour before bedtime. This can prolong the time it takes to fall asleep because it delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, affects REM sleep and reduces alertness the following morning.

Interestingly, the majority of people aren’t aware of the detrimental effects that either sleeping too little or too much might have. A bad sleeping hygiene, is associated with higher risks of cardiovascular disease as well as all-cause mortality. A recent meta-analysis study found that around 7 hours per night may be the most beneficial, having the lower association with disease. So the solution might not lie in counteracting a bad night sleep with a 12 hour one! Nonetheless, these figures vary across individuals, and only personalised testing and analysis could provide the most beneficial sleeping routines for you.

Unregulated sleep has been shown to disturb our metabolism, increase the risk of obesity and can lead to heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, among other conditions [1]. In a study by Uppsala University, researchers found that even one night sleep deprivation can epigenetically alter our biological clock genes. In addition, lack of sleep has been linked to weight gain and muscle loss. Sleep deprivation can also contribute to the formation of oxidative species, which damages our DNA, leading to detrimental health outcomes. Ultimately, sleep deprivation disrupts some of the molecular pathways that regulate our epigenome, changing how genes are turned on and off, and in turn affect our synaptic plasticity, learning, and memory processes.

What is disconcerting, is that people nowadays seem to be focusing on products to keep them awake, ignoring the damaging effects these can have on their health. Perhaps we’d all consider switching that new Netflix series off if we were aware of how damaging lack of sleep can be for our bodies.

With the rise of technology, we now have the ability to see exactly, through epigenetic testing, how lack of sleep is affecting our bodies and how it may affect us in years to come. Developing good sleep habits is something that can increase lifespan and really improve our health.

Daniel Herranz, Chief Science Officer at Chronomics, explains that “although we cannot change the genes we inherit, we CAN detect changes within our epigenetics, or the way that our genes are switched on and off”. These are genes that we are at risk of changing negatively through sleep loss and bad lifestyle, and in turn can lead to worse consequences down the road. So maybe we will think twice next time we take that extra double espresso shot to keep us awake or stay up past midnight on a TV binge.

We can be the masters of our health and choose the best sleeping habits based on informed awareness of what is personally best for us. Hence, taking advantage of the recent advances in science, and allowing individualised measures and improvements of the quality of our sleep are worth giving a try! Then, why not commencing this new year with the resolution of improving your health, wellbeing, and productivity by informing yourself about the most suited sleeping habit for you?

* Source: William Shakespeare, George Steevens (1853). “The Works of William Shakespeare: Comprising His Dramatic and Poetical Works, Complete”, p.235

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