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You have probably come across the saying, ‘ You snooze – you lose’.  This may be true in some instances, but not in all. A few years ago I read an article about the association between a lack of sleep and a common condition known as irritable bowel syndrome, written by Dr David Johnson a Professor of Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School in the USA.  He suggested that not getting a good night’s sleep triggered biochemical processes in the human body, which in turn could cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract or gut. Now if this is true for the gut, then what about some other bits of our anatomy?

Bad sleep and disease

It turns out that a lack of sleep, i.e.  getting less than 6 hours per night seems to impact significantly on a number of disease states, including:

  • a  400% increase in the risk of having a stoke; 
  • an increase in the secretion of the hormone ghrelin which stimulates hunger and therefore lack of sleep looks to be a factor in obesity;
  • the development of insulin resistance and, as a consequence, the development of Type 2 diabetes;
  • the development of impaired memory and the  early deterioration of brain function, and thus it may be a link in the Alzheimer’s chain of events;
  • the development of cardiovascular disease, and a 48% increase in early death from heart disease;
  • the risk of developing various cancers;
  • a 4-fold increase in overall premature death.

What is the link between sleep deprivation and the development of a number of diseases?

As with irritable bowel syndrome the answer appears to be one word: Inflammation. But we need to bear in mind that not all inflammation is bad. For example, an inflammatory response is part of our defence mechanism in combating infections caused by viruses and bacteria. Burn yourself and  your tissues at the site of the burn become inflamed. Again the resulting inflammatory response is not bad – it’s very much part of the healing process. 

So how can inflammation be both good and bad? We produce chemical entities or products  called reactive oxygen species (ROS) as part of our normal cellular metabolism.  The antioxidants we produce eliminate these products fulfilling a normal cellular function. However, when the production of ROS exceeds our ability to produce antioxidants, we end up with a state known as oxidative stress. Sleep deprivation  leads to the overproduction of ROS, which if not cleared by our antioxidants leads to chronic oxidative stress, which leads to chronic inflammation, and Bob’s your uncle –  which leads to the development of a number of chronic diseases!

How to improve our sleep?

If sleep deprivation is bad then how do we fix the problem? Firstly,  we need to realise  that there is nothing macho about statements like,‘ I get by on only 4 hours of sleep ‘.  (ps won’t someone  please whisper this in President Trump’s ear). Is medication the answers? No, it should never be our first option – not when we have a number of lifestyle-related options available including:

  • Don’t watch TV or  do computer work for at least an hour before going to bed. The light emitted by TV & computer screens impairs the function of melatonin, the hormone that plays an important role in sleep.
  • Try to sleep in complete darkness as even the smallest amount of light can interfere with the production of melatonin and serotonin – the sleep-related hormones.
  • Research shows that the optimal temperature required to ensure a good night’s rest is between 16 and 20°C.  Our bodies internal temperature drops to its lowest level about 4 hours after failing asleep. Cooler bedroom temperatures ensure better sleep.
  • Taking a hot bath or shower before going to bed increases your internal temperature and then as you cool down this signals  your body that you are ready to sleep.
  • Electro-magnetic fields are thought to interfere with serotonin and melatonin production, and so keep electrical and electronic  devices such as radios, TV’s (a ‘passion killer’ anyway) mobile phones and other similar devices well away from your bedroom.
  • While moderate alcohol consumption can relax one and thus promote sleep, excessive amounts have been shown to negatively interfere with sleep patterns.

And with that, I’ll say ‘Good night and sleep tight’ – after all its really good for you!

I’m Dr Peter Hill for UpForIt

Preventing People From Becoming Patients