Running on empty. Burning the candle at both ends. Pulling an all-nighter.
Sleep loss is so endemic to American society that we have a whole vocabulary for it. Despite a couple of decades of research revealing the health dangers of cheating on sleep, the culture seems to expect effort and achievement at any cost, including widespread sleep deprivation. In many work places, neglecting sleep is practically a badge of honor.
Yet the data on the effects couldn’t be clearer. Epidemiological studies have linked short sleep duration, poor sleep quality, and diagnosed sleep problems to heart disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity and type 2 diabetes. And harmful cardiovascular and metabolic changes that lead to these negative outcomes begin to occur when sleep is restricted to four or five hours a night for just a week or two.
Exactly how this takes place has been something of a mystery, however. But a new study from the University of Helsinki, using sophisticated blood tests and questionnaires designed to measure subjects’ sleep length and quality, begins to shed light on what’s going on when people accrue a sleep debt.
The lab tests showed that genes that regulate reverse cholesterol transport are less active in people experiencing sleep loss than in those who get enough shut-eye. Researchers also found that people who get insufficient sleep had fewer high-density lipoproteins than well-rested people.
These effects, researchers found, led to inflammatory reactions and changes in cholesterol metabolism that in turn contribute to the build-up of dangerous plaque on blood vessel walls. And it only takes a week of skimping on sleep to ignite the process. If the condition (i.e., sleep loss) that promotes inflammation continues, the changes to metabolism can become chronic. Along with other risk factors, the findings help explain the elevated cardiovascular disease risk seen among people who are sleep-deprived as well as the mechanisms involved.
Like the data that came before it, the study confirms that sleep has an enormous beneficial effect on both the cardiovascular system and normal metabolic processes. And a growing body of data show the importance of sleep on other body functions and on health in general. In provocative recent research from the National Institutes of Health, for instance, researchers found that sleep helps rid the brain of toxic by-products through a newly identified “glymphatic” system that may help to fend off Alzheimer’s disease as people age. Among more than 68,000 women studied in data from the Nurses’ Health Study, moreover, women sleeping 5 or fewer hours a night gained more weight on average than those sleeping 7 hours over 16 years of follow-up. And people with sleep disturbances had a two- to threefold higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a Japanese study.
The mission, if we choose to take it: to convince a nation addicted to cheating sleep to spend another hour or two in bed each night. The health and economic benefits could be truly profound.
One free benefit of having your labs done through Cleveland HeartLab is that your physician can enroll you in Cleveland Clinic’s “Go! To Sleep Program”. Just request that it be ordered on the requisition with your next lab tests!