Many of us think very little of messing with our sleep schedules. Students pull all-nighters when studying for (or celebrating after) exams, people who work night or turn-around shifts often take it for granted that their sleep schedules will be interfered with by their jobs, and individuals who struggle with sleep disorders are often simply used to restless nights.
But a new study has indicated that all those sleepless nights may be having a more profound impact on your body. Researchers at Uppsala University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden say that even one night of missed sleep can have an effect on the genes that control our body’s biological clocks.
The study, slated for publication in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, examined the impact of a full night’s uninterrupted rest, followed by a night of sleep deprivation, on healthy male volunteers. Before and after the all-nighters, blood and tissue samples were taken so that scientists could study the biological ramifications of just one night of no sleep.
What They Discovered
When the samples were analyzed, researchers noted that the genes that regulate the activity of the volunteers’ biological clocks were altered. Sleep-deprived participants showed an increase in epigenetic activity – which is to say, chemical alterations to their DNA – and a change in gene expression.
“As far as we know, we are the first to directly show that epigenetic changes can occur after sleep loss in humans, but also in these important tissues,” said the study’s lead author, Jonathan Cedernaes, in a press release(1).
“It was interesting that the methylation of these genes could be altered so quickly, and that it could occur for these metabolically important clock genes.”
Still Some Unknown Factors
There are several unknown factors at play still when it comes to how lack of sleep impacts our genes. Researchers hope that the adverse effects aren’t long-lasting, and can be easily reversed once an individual has caught up on their rest. However, they caution that the potential for greater risks in the long term means that a regular sleep schedule is just as important as ever.
“It could be that these changes are reset after one or several nights of good sleep,” said Cedernaes. “On the other hand, epigenetic marks are suggested to be able to function (as) a sort of metabolic memory, and have been found to be altered (in) shift workers and people suffering from type 2 diabetes. This could mean that at least some types of sleep loss or extended wakefulness, as in shift work, could lead to changes in the genome of your tissues that can affect your metabolism for longer periods.”
Sleep disorders affect between 50 and 70 million Americans, according to the CDC(2).