Sleep deprivation is quite common among students and working adults. Unfortunately, it causes changes in mood, attention, metabolism, immune system, hormones and much more. If sleep deprivation continues for years, it is very likely to cause mental illness or a body disease. These long-term sleep loss problems are usually linked to changes in gene activity and expression.
Does your behavior influence your genes?
It does, but it is not only your behavior – development (in children and adolescents), aging, diet, environment, drug and tobacco intake – all play a role in how your genes are expressed. These factors can’t change your genes (if you’re tall or have curly hair), but they can change how genes which control your mood and health are expressed. The scientific field dealing with these changes is called epigenetics.
How does losing sleep influence your genes?
Epigenetics and sleep have a complex relationship. Researchers have found the main causes for change and know what the consequences are, but are still unsure how the changes happen.
The part of the puzzle they’ve solved is this – sleep deprivation can be caused by lifestyle, work, health or other factors. It alters various signaling pathways through which your neurons (nerve cells) communicate. The change begins within the nerve cell and spreads like a cascade from one cell to another.
Change in the gene itself can be made by the following processes: histone modifications (that is, modification of proteins that pack up the DNA chains), non-coding RNA molecules (which have a role in translation and DNA replication), and DNA methylation/hydroxymethylation (addition of methyl groups to a DNA molecule, which may change its activity). Only one of them can be enough to create change or they can all work together to make it.
Finally, we can see the change in cognitive problems, like poor learning, forgetfulness, and lack of attention. On the other hand, we can witness metabolic changes, such as insulin resistance. The circadian rhythm (your inner biological clock) can also become disrupted, causing you to have an unusual sleep time (going to bed too late and waking up too late, for example). Some changes are strongly linked to cancer cells and their functioning.
As epigenetics is still a young discipline, more research needs to be done in this field. Recently, scientists have been trying to find out whether and how adverse epigenetic changes can be medically reversed – especially when it comes to the treatment of life-threatening illnesses.
What you can do
To avoid dangerous and undesirable epigenetic changes, you can pay attention to your sleep habits – don’t stay up long and do your best to keep a regular sleep schedule. This means going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day, which helps your circadian clock work properly. Make sure to avoid stimulants like caffeine in the evening. If you feel your sleep isn’t restorative (you wake up tired), talk to a professional and treat any sleep disorders.
- Aggarwal R, Jha M, Shrivastava A, Jha A. K. Natural Compounds: Role in Reversal of Epigenetic Changes. Biochemistry. August 2015.
- Epigenetics and Sleep. SleepKid. https://www.sleepkid.com/sleep-epigenetics/ April 28, 2019.
- Gaine, M. E, Chatterjee S, Abel T. Sleep Deprivation and the Epigenome. Frontiers in Neural Circuits. February 2018.
- Weinhold, B. Epigenetics: The Science of Change. Environmental Health Perspectives. Mar 2006.