A run of bad shut-eye can potentially wreak havoc on the body’s internal workings, say British researchers.
A study has found the activity of hundreds of genes was changed after participants’ sleep was reduced to under six hours daily.
Writing in a specialist journal, the researchers said the findings were helpful in explaining the adverse impact of poor quality sleep on health.
Substandard sleep has already been linked to a number of issues, including diabetes, obesity, heart disease and brain function. But it’s less well known how missing slumber actually alters health.
The Surrey University project studied the blood of 26 individuals who had slept well – for up to 10 hours a night for a week. The results were then compared with samples taken after a week of less than six hours’ rest nightly.
The change led to alterations in over 700 genes. Each has the instructions for constructing a protein, so those that became more active created a greater number of proteins, altering the body’s chemistry.
Equally, the natural body clock was disrupted. Some genes naturally wax and wane in activity during the day, but sleep deprivation dulled this effect.
A professor from the university told journalists: “There was a significant shift in activity in many varied types of genes.”
There was also an impact on things like the immune system, and the way the body responds to stress and damage.
He added: “Sleep is clearly vital to rebuilding the body and the maintenance of a functional state. All kinds of damage seems to take place when we don’t have enough sleep – and it could lead to ill-health.
“We need sleep to replenish and replace new cells. If this doesn’t occur, it could contribute to degenerative diseases.”
Clearly, many could be experiencing even more sleep deprivation than those who took part in the research, indicating that problems could be widespread.
One Cambridge academic who saw the study believes the key finding was the effect on inflammation and the immune system, since it was possible to see a connection between those effects and health issues including diabetes.
The results also tie into previous research aiming to see if humans could do without sleep altogether, for example by developing a drug that could remove the impact of sleep deprivation.
The Cambridge academic said: “Theoretically, if you could identify the switch which causes these changes, and turn it on or off, you could get away without sleep. But my feeling is that sleep is critical to the regeneration of all cells.”
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