Most of us probably assume that missing a night of sleep is harmless. Between work, studying, parenting or celebrating, we’ve all done it. But scientists have discovered that just one sleepless night can damage your DNA.
Swedish researchers at Uppsala University and the Karolinska Institute have discovered that missing a single night of sleep can alter the genes that control our body’s cellular biological clocks. Disrupted biological clocks can affect changes in our body temperature, appetite, and metabolism—even brain activity.
In the two-night study (one night of good sleep and one of no sleep), blood and tissue samples showed that the regulation and activity of “clock genes” was changed after only one night of sleep loss. Researchers noted chemical changes to the DNA molecule that regulates how the genes are switched on or off.
What remains unclear is whether or not these changes are permanent or if our bodies are able to “reset” after one or more nights of good sleep. But one of the real concerns this study highlights are the effects of extended sleep loss—such as shift work, that “could lead to changes in the genome of your tissues that can affect your metabolism for longer periods,” according to Dr. Jonathan Cedernaes, the study’s lead author and expert in the field of endocrinology and metabolism.
A 2013 study conducted at the University of Surrey in England had findings similar to that of the Swedish study, though it was not widely publicized. Their study indicated just one week of insufficient sleep (defined by fewer than six hours of sleep) can alter more than 700 genes in human beings.
Sleep loss has already been strongly linked to an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. And night-shift work has been previously linked to cancer, but it was unclear why at the time. Another study conducted by the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona has already tied the lack of sleep to changes in hormone levels—which doctors acknowledge increases the risk of cancer.
Sleep research is furthering our understanding of a complex link between sleep and certain diseases. The bottom line is, if you do not prioritize your sleep, you should. If you struggle with getting a decent, uninterrupted night of sleep, speak with your doctor and change your lifestyle to better accommodate healthy sleep habits. You’ll be glad you did.