Many of us are guilty of skipping sleep every now and then. While we may not be pulling all-nighters like we did in college before a major exam, we still don’t always get those eight hours of recommended sleep. We’re either too busy or too distracted to get a solid night’s sleep. It might seem that a quick nap later or sleeping a bit more on the weekends is enough to balance out the scales, but it’s not. Skipping sleep has a number of different harmful effects on the human body. Studies have shown that it leads to impaired thinking and can make conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity worse.
No one is exactly certain why the human body needs sleep, but experts do know that sleep is required for cells and muscles to repair themselves. It also helps regulate certain hormones and other bodily functions. A new survey done by researchers at Nova Southeastern University located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has examined how skipping sleep affects systemic metabolism, including DNY methylation levels and redox metabolites. The end conclusions are that skipping sleep can lead to epigenetic changes and that it lowers the body’s ability to protect again free radicals.
To understand how skipping sleep truly hurts the body, it’s important to understand what free radicals are. Your body is damaged by free radicals every day. These molecules go through a number of different oxidative reactions, damaging the cells around them as they do. The more free radicals present in the body, the worse this damage is.
When the body doesn’t get the right amount of sleep it needs, its metabolic functions get disrupted. This leads to an imbalance between the body’s antioxidant defenses and the reactive oxygen species. The result is that fewer of these free radicals are destroyed, which in turn means more cells are damaged. This can impact DNA methylation, which damages your DNA. If you’ve been skipping sleep regularly due to insomnia or stress, the large build-up of free radicals can also cause some epigenetic changes such as premature aging.
A number of studies have looked at how this type of damage affects animals. Those studies examined animals that were not allowed to sleep and how it affected their metabolites. No studies like this had been done on humans, though, until the Nova Southeastern University study.
This study took 19 adults who usually slept regularly every night. They slept a full eight hours of sleep one night while wearing a device that monitored their behavior. This device lets the researchers know that the participants truly did sleep eight hours. It also tracked their sleep patterns, including how often they got up in the night.
The next night, they went without sleep completely. The morning after their eight hours of sleep and the morning after their sleep deprivation, researchers took blood samples that looked at a number of different factors.
After analyzing the plasma and saliva from each participant, the results showed that several important hormones and antioxidant levels were significantly lowered after going just one night without sleeping. The team noted specifically that gluththione, an antioxidant usually referred to as GSH, dropped proportionally to the increase in free radical damage. Adenosine triphosphate or ATP also dropped, leading to more advanced aging.
Even if you are just skipping sleep every now and then, you’re putting your body at risk of damage from free radicals. The study only examined what happened to the patients after a single night of little to no sleep. Based on the results, it’s easy to see that skipping sleep for multiple nights in a row could have devastating effects on the body.
Looking older is bad enough. However, there’s more to the damage done by free radicals than just increasing how quickly you age. This study only reinforces what a number of previous researchers have determined. Skipping sleep reduces the body’s ability to protect against a number of different types of damage. When ATP levels drop, mitochondrial functions aren’t at their peak, and GSH falls. That is when it’s more likely that you will develop a neurological disorder or a neurodegenerative disease.
What the study did note was that skipping sleep entirely is much worse than developing odd sleep patterns. Sleep behavior didn’t actually contribute to the study’s results in any way. That means even if you split your sleep or get up several times during the night, your body is still able to repair itself. It’s only by skipping sleep entirely that you’re doing this major type of damage. Of course, sleeping too little is unhealthy in its own way and does make it hard for the body to repair itself. A little sleep, though, is always better than none at all.
This study may have been the first of its kind with human participants, but it won’t be the last. The research team fully understands that their study only had 19 participants, which is a fairly small number of people. While it did present some solid evidence that skipping sleep is very dangerous, more studies need to be done. They will determine if these findings are correct across all ages, genders, and other statistics.
The bottom line, though, is that skipping sleep definitely affects ATP loss and can increase oxidative stress. That means the more often you skip sleeping, the more likely it is that you’ll start to develop wrinkles and other signs of aging. Skipping sleep too often can lead to much worse damage, including some making some diseases worse. All in all, while it might seem like you have to go without sleep just to get things done, it’s much more dangerous than most people think. To avoid these issues, there are options that can help.