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Forty winks

Posted 08/03/2013 by cgodfrey

Having just stumbled off an overnight flight from the US, my thoughts have naturally turned to the recent publication of research showing that continuous sleep deprivation can result in genetic changes that can affect overall health and well-being. And with those thoughts came a recollection of how many people that I have spoken to recently who are suffering from extensive problems with insomnia. To cap all this, I opened my newspaper to see a story about the problems that are being experienced in schools on Monday mornings with students suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder.

In my jet-lagged state, my mind set about trying to reconcile these different sets of information. Certainly there is no question that lack of sleep on an overnight flight from West to East leaves the human body in an extremely strange state of semi-wakefulness and disorientation. But this is just an occasional state, unlike the condition of those of us who do not or cannot enjoy a relatively sleep-filled night. One can only wonder at how they drag themselves through a day with all its competing attention seeking demands, from emails and mobile phones, through the increasingly faster pace of work, to the general demands of family life.

According to the US government’s National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey in 2008, 37% of adults reported ‘inadequate sleep’, and 29% ‘severe sleep deprivation’. In 2010, in a different study, some 30% of employed adults  said they slept six hours or less, while among night-shift workers, the percentage reporting the prevalence of ‘short sleep’ reached 44%, rising to 70% among warehouse staff and transportation employees.

The recent research in question, paid for by the US Air Force, was actually conducted at the University of Surrey and shows that chronic sleep deprivation – less than six hours of sleep each night for a week changes the activity of over 700 genes in white blood cells, some 3% of an individual’s total genes. About a third of these genes are stimulated while the remaining two thirds are suppressed. The result is that these ‘circadian’ genes lose their rhythms.

These genes are involved in metabolism, immunity, inflammation, hormone response, and a host of other activities. And the researchers believe these changes may help us understand how a lack of sleep affects our attention and cognitive responses as well as possibly raising the risk of illnesses, including diabetes, and coronary heart disease.

Clearly the human body just hasn’t evolved quickly enough to meet our 24/7 life styles.

But what about those children unable to concentrate on Monday mornings – are they suffering from a form of jet-lag due to too much texting, computer-gaming or Facebook time? And are they really capable of so-called multi-tasking: doing all these things at the same time in front of flickering screens?

Certainly there is evidence that they are continuing these activities well into the night when the rest of us are, hopefully, catching up on our down-time and allowing our brains to assess and recover from the day’s experiences.

But are they doing themselves serious genetic damage as the University of Surrey research suggests?

And is this storing up a major future health challenge - if they are doing themselves serious damage, can we detect it and can we do anything about it?

As for me, this is all too much to contemplate - I am off for forty winks to try and remind my brain and my genes which time zone they are actually in.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    22/06/2013 04:01

    Martin & Gabriela I love your blog! I have been meaning to come back to your blog/website for a while now to check in, and I'm filalny doing it. So happy for all you two have accomplished and are still accomplishing with your yoga! Take care, and Namaste!