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How Sleep Deprivation Alters Your DNA

Don't lose sleep over it. No really, don't.

You may know that not getting enough shut-eye is bad for you, but a recent study has revealed just how bad.

British researchers published a study that showed how just a week of missed sleep screwed with more than 700 genes, triggering a cascade of negative health effects.

Conducted at Surrey University, the study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was the first experiment to investigate the direct effects of sleep deprivation on the human “transcriptome.” The transcriptome comprises all the messenger RNA molecules tasked with transcribing genetic information from DNA to form proteins.

The study featured 26 healthy volunteers. Half of those participants were allowed only six hours of sleep per night for seven consecutive nights, while the other half were allowed 10 hours — that's generous, if you ask us.

Throughout the week-long study, the quality of participants’ sleep was evaluated on a nightly basis. Cognitive tests and questionnaires were given throughout the day. Researchers also measured participants’ levels of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating our day-night cycles.

By the end of the week, both groups were kept awake for a 40-hour period. Blood RNA samples were collected, and participants were allotted a full 12 hours of sleep to recover.

Analysis revealed that the regular activity of 711 genes either intensified or decreased for participants who had sustained the week of insufficient sleep. These changes in gene expression can have wide-ranging and dramatic effects in the body.

The genes altered played a role in regulating stress responses, metabolism, and the biological clock. Many were involved in maintaining circadian rhythms — that is, the timing of common biological functions such as sleeping and digestion. Others had a hand in gene regulation, meaning that chronic sleep deprivation could cause even greater genetic changes over time.

Researchers also found that sleep-deprived participants performed poorer when tested for memory, cognition, and attention. They may call it beauty sleep but clearly it has other functions.

Scientists have long known about the connection between long-term sleep loss and diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions.

Poor sleep is even associated with lower life expectancy. Meta-data from several studies revealed that getting less than five hours of sleep can increase the risk of mortality — from all causes — by a whopping 15 percent.

But the English study was the first of its kind to suggest that short-term sleep loss can have a profound impact on gene expression.

The takeaway? Think twice the next time you decide to pull an all-nighter.

[Image via Getty]

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