Epigenetics at work: Sleep Restriction and Health


It’s a tip that was probably told to you by your mom, but one that could have a serious effect on your health for years to come. We all know that getting enough sleep is important for wellness, but could the effects range beyond feeling groggy the next day? According to scientists at the University of Surrey, the answer is yes.

Epigenetic effects of sleep restriction

The study measured the effects of sleep restriction on how genes were expressed in two groups. Unlike a genome analysis, which examines the DNA, analysis was conducted on the transcriptome, which measures the RNA used by cells to function. For the first time, the effects of sleep deprivation were measured in how genes were actually expressed.

The protocol had two separate groups, one sleeping an average of 5.7 hours per night and the other an average of 8.5 hours. Both groups were then exposed to staying awake for 40 hours continuously.

The results were staggering. Over 711 genes were affected by sleep deprivation, governing everything from metabolism to immune response to mental performance. In addition, the sleep deprived condition made the effect of staying awake for 40 hours even worse. By the numbers, seven times as worse, with the affected genes going from 122 to 856.

What this means for you

The concern of the researchers immediately following the results was that these results were only seen after one week! People (myself included) can often go for months if not years of not catching up with sleep. No research exists onthe epigenetic effects over this sort of timeline but the effects of insufficient sleep are known. All of these have serious implications in a potential survival scenario.

A decrease in vigilance and cognition is one of the most well known association with lack of sleep. Whether on watch or trying to plan your daily activities, any decrease in this could be dangerous. In self-defense situations it can only take one mistake. If there is an epigenetic basis to the effects of sleep deprivation, any lost sleep could be inhibiting your ability to perform in this regard over the long term.

Those of you that have served in the military will no doubt point out that sometimes sleep deprivation is not a choice, especially when it comes to watch. However, the findings of the study that long term sleep deprivation made the affect of continuous deprivation worse is very important. When the time comes that you may be forced to be on the guard for an extended amount of time, the effects will be less bad if you have been good about your sleep leading up.

General health is also greatly affected by sleep deprivation. From general mortality, to cardiovascular disease, to diabetes and obesity,

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the way in which the 711 genes can affect your body’s function

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are widespread. Knowing that the most important item on your bug out bag list is you, sleep needs to become a priority.

Action plans

How do you plan to get more sleep? One thing that helped me was making the decision to wake up at dawn and set hard limits on when to go to bed in the evening. As someone who is very sensitive to light, this

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ensures that the sleep I have is in darkness. Melatonin, the neurotransmitter that signals tiredness, is also shut off by blue light that is seen at dawn.

Let me know any tips you have in the comments!


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by JP Martin