Having trouble sleeping? You’re not alone. More than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.
Yet, each year, new studies related to sleep show just how important it is for overall health. Lack of sleep has been found to weaken your immune system and increase your risk for all sorts of chronic diseases in the short term and over time.
Thanks to a recent study, researchers now have additional insight as to why. According to the study, Inconsistent sleeping patterns during the night can physically alter the DNA inside stem cells.
Stem cells mostly live in the bone marrow (the spongy center of certain bones). One of the main functions of these cells is to produce white blood cells, which are essential to your immune system.
As a result of getting less sleep than normal, participants in the study showed an overproduction of white blood cells. So why is flooding the body with white blood cells a bad thing?
Because it can cause your immune system to overreact and trigger inflammation. This can lead to heart disease and other inflammatory disorders.
“The stem cells have been imprinted, or genetically altered, under the influence of sleep restriction,” said study team member Filip Swirski, PhD, director of cardiovascular research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
For the study, a group of healthy adults had their blood tested before a six-week period of sleep restriction, in which they slept 90 minutes less than their normal. At the end of the experiment, blood was drawn again revealing higher levels of both the stem cells and the white blood cells.
In another study, researchers kept waking up mice several times at night, artificially creating fragmented sleep rather than just reduced duration. The end result showed a similar response. The mice experienced an increase in stem cells and white blood cells, as well as altered cell DNA.
“It shows that in humans and mice, disrupted sleep has a profound influence on the programming of immune cells and rate of their production, causing them to lose their protective effects and actually make infections worse — and these changes are long-lasting,” Swirski said in a statement.
Catch-up sleep does not seem to rectify the problem.
Even after the mice were given time for recovery sleep, the negative effects remained.
“Our findings suggest that sleep recovery is not able to fully reverse the effects of poor-quality sleep,” said the research paper’s first author, Cameron McAlpine, PhD, an assistant professor of cardiology at Icahn Mount Sinai.
The limits of catch-up sleep were already discovered in previous studies. Even if it feels like you’ve recovered, and you “get back to feeling normal,” some permanent damage on a cellular level may have already been done to the body and brain.
Experts say that losing sleep in one night can be made up the next day, but only partially. Not getting your normal amount of sleep across several days or weeks is almost guaranteed to cause irreparable harm, even if all you see is dark circles under your eyes and a cranky mood.
“Sleep impacts optimal functioning of nearly every cell and organ in the body,” said Marishka Brown, PhD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research. While Brown wasn’t involved in the research, she did mention that this new study “supports findings from larger population studies, which have shown that sleep can have a protective effect against a variety of conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and dementia.”
In general, adults should be getting anywhere between seven to eight hours of sleep. Although there are exceptions to the rule. We all know one person who can get away with just five to six hours of sleep.
It’s even more important for children and teenagers to get adequate amounts of sleep during their growing phase. Unfortunately, a staggering 77.9% of high school students don’t get the minimum suggested amount.
If you want better overall health, make quality sleep a priority. Some things you can do to sleep better at night include, cutting back on alcohol, following a bedtime routine, exercising regularly and spending time outdoors every day.