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Blog > Sleep Deprivation: Can It Actually Change Your DNA?

Sleep Deprivation: Can It Actually Change Your DNA?

Learn the connection between how lack of sleep can impact your overall health
Some digital DNA helixes set against a dark background.

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If you’ve ever received a 23andMe report, you may know how your DNA affects your caffeine consumption or your cheek dimples. But genetics aren’t necessarily set in stone. While some of your genetics are unchangeable, such as eye color, hair color, or height, your genes can change.

For example, every time your body goes into repair mode when you recover from an injury, it creates cells through a process called genetic coding. This process typically results in new, identical cells. However, in some cases, the coding can abnormally repeat DNA sequences, which can impact your genes.

So, what about sleep, another restorative process in which your body repairs itself? Getting quality sleep not only supports your overall health, it helps your genes function “normally,” as well. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, can have a negative effect on your genes and potentially lead you to experience health complications, such as disease.

Let’s explore the connection between your genes and a good night’s sleep.

Why Are your Genes at Risk?

We’ve established that: Yes, your genes can change. But here’s how they change.

First, there are your genes, and then there’s gene expression. Genes are made up of DNA. Genetic coding refers to the instructions genes give to your body’s cells.

Gene expression is how this genetic coding impacts the body. To simplify: If genes are how the instructions are written, gene expression is how they perform.

Environmental factors will impact your genetics. For example, diet, lifestyle habits, and environmental factors, such as toxins, can all affect your genetic structures.

As mentioned before, when the body replaces cells, the way the cells replicate themselves can be impacted in the process. When a child cell isn’t directly copied like its parent cell, the result is altered genetics.

Cancer is one of the best-known examples of this altered process. Cancer occurs when healthy, normal cells in the body begin to “go rogue” by growing and functioning in a different way.

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How Are your Genes Affected by Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is an environmental factor that can disrupt your genes.

In one study, researchers examined people who were exposed to a week of insufficient sleep (defined as 5.7 hours or less). Looking at the participants’ blood samples following the study, they found that inadequate sleep affected more than 700 of the subjects’ genes. Some of the genes impacted by insufficient sleep were linked to inflammation, the immune system, and how the body responds to stress.

The scientists found that the number of genes impacted by sleep deprivation was seven times higher after one week of poor sleep.

The research also confirmed that some of the genes impacted by sleep deprivation may lead to obesity, heart disease, and cognitive impairments.

Some research has found that just one night of poor sleep may alter your genes. A single all-nighter may result in chemical alterations to the DNA molecule that regulates which genes are switched on or off. Gene expression is also impacted after going without sleep. Fortunately, if you occasionally go without sleep, your body should be able to recover once you’re able to get several nights of quality rest.

Sleep and Genes Study

The greatest dangers to your genes as a result of sleep deprivation occur in those who are chronically sleep deprived. In many studies on chronic sleep loss, researchers have focused on individuals who work atypical shifts, often late at night. Admittedly though, study results may have been skewed as some subjects were likely able to adjust to their irregular schedules over time.

However, in this particular study, researchers examined a particular group of people who frequently suffer from irregular sleep patterns: doctors.

The study compared the DNA patterns and repair structures of doctors working day and night shifts. Doctors who worked the night shifts showed 30% lower baseline levels of DNA repair gene expression and significantly more DNA breaks than doctors who worked the day shift.

When the same doctors suffered from acute sleep deprivation (defined as a period of one to two days in which very little or no sleep occurred), the DNA changes increased by an additional 25%.

Although chronic sleep deprivation causes the most damage to someone’s DNA, the study concluded that sleep deprivation didn’t need to be chronic to cause DNA damage.

Despite the significant results from the study, it’s still not entirely clear how sleep deprivation causes damage to someone’s genes. DNA is likely damaged through several sources. Most often, the expressive genes impacted by this damage are associated with aging, DNA repair, and oxidative stress.

Disruption of DNA and gene expression can severely impact someone’s ability to fight off illnesses and recover from injury. So, while short-term sleep deprivation may not immediately and significantly impact your health, it can leave your body much more vulnerable to distress in the long term.

The Bottom Line

While you may not think about your genes very often, sleep deprivation can significantly impact gene expression.

To develop good sleep hygiene, aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Research has shown most adults need this amount of sleep to stay healthy, recover from illness, and maintain a healthy mental state. Of course, getting regular good sleep is easier said than done for some of us. If you’re struggling with sleep or have a health condition that’s impacted by sleep deprivation, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor.

Looking for support in building healthier habits, such as better sleeping patterns? Learn more about how an Arootah Health Coach can help.

Disclaimer: This article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be and should not be taken as professional medical, psychological, legal, investment, financial, accounting, or tax advice. Arootah does not warrant or guarantee the accuracy, reliability, completeness, or suitability of its content for a particular purpose. Please do not act or refrain from acting based on anything you read in our newsletter, blog or anywhere else on our website.

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