Not getting enough sleep does more than make you extra tired in the morning. In fact, sleep deficiency is linked to so many chronic health woes it’s now treated as a serious public health problem by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, lack of adequate shut-eye raises the risk of heart disease, depression, stroke, diabetes, and obesity, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
A study by University of Helsinki researchers has documented how too little sleep may cause these and other health problems. Skimping on sleep, the study found, impacts how the body metabolizes cholesterol, triggers inflammation, and may damage blood vessels, too.
The Sleep Team Helsinki research group used two different approaches to see how insufficient sleep affects the body. In order to objectively measure how long volunteers slept, the researchers had 14 study participants spend five nights in a sleep lab where they were only allowed to sleep for four hours. Seven more volunteers were used as controls and not kept awake. In another arm of their research, the Helsinki scientists used questionnaires to ask 2,739 people how long they typically sleep at night.
Then blood samples from those in both the laboratory-induced sleep loss experiment and the people who self-reported how much they sleep were analyzed. “We examined what changes sleep loss caused to the functions of the body and which of these changes could be partially responsible for the elevated risk for illness," said lead researcher Vilma Aho.
The results of the study showed genes that are key to regulating cholesterol were less active in people suffering from sleep loss than in those who got sufficient sleep. What’s more, the tests showed it took only a few days of insufficient sleep for those who participated in the sleep lab study to show negative changes to their immune responses and metabolism, according to Aho.
The research participants who answered the questionnaire and reported not getting enough hours of restful sleep were found to have lower levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL, the heart protective “good” cholesterol) than the people who said they typically slept long enough most nights. The sleep deficit volunteers also had metabolites in their blood that indicated more inflammation in their bodies.
"It is particularly interesting that these factors contributing to the onset of atherosclerosis, that is to say inflammatory reactions and changes to cholesterol metabolism, were found both in the experimental (sleep lab) study and in the epidemiological data," said Aho.
The researchers concluded it’s not enough for doctors and health educators to promote eating nutritious food and regular exercise for wellness – the importance of getting enough good, restful sleep in order to help prevent common diseases should also be stressed.
The NHLBI calls adequate sleep a basic human need, like eating, drinking, and breathing, that’s vital for good health and well-being throughout your lifetime.
Unfortunately, sleep deprivation is widespread in the U.S. CDC research shows one-third of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep on a regular basis.
“As a nation we are not getting enough sleep,” said Wayne Giles, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of Population Health. “Lifestyle changes such as going to bed at the same time each night, rising at the same time each morning, and turning off or removing televisions, computers, mobile devices from the bedroom, can help people get the healthy sleep they need.”
July 21, 2016
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA