Research has been telling us for years that not getting enough sleep can have serious life-long consequences that go beyond the everyday problems caused by sleep deprivation.  When you have a sleep deficit, you are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some types of cancer.  Studies have even shown that lack of sleep can be a contributing factor in becoming obese.  All of this has made it pretty clear that not getting enough sleep is very bad for your health in both the short and long term.  But does when you are sleeping matter, too? This is the question a newly released study sought to answer.

The study, which was recently published in the Science of Translational Medicine journal, looked at what happened to people’s metabolism and blood sugar when they experienced a reduction in the amount of sleep they were getting and slept at abnormal times.  The team wanted to see if people who do shift work and are unable to sleep at night are at a higher risk for obesity and diabetes simply because of their sleep schedule.

The study included 21 healthy participants, male and female, whose ages spanned from their 20s to their 60s. Throughout the 6 week experiment, participants lived in dimly lit rooms without windows which kept their bodies from adjusting to day or night.   After developing baseline data based on several nights of 10 hours sleep during normal sleeping hours, the research team swapped their sleep schedule for one that is more common to people who work off hours.  Participants were only allowed to sleep 5.5 hours a day and the times they were allowed to sleep varied, mimicking the schedule many shift workers follow.  After three weeks, the participants were allowed to return to a normal sleep schedule and sleep for the full 10 hours for 9 nights.

The results were startling and may help further explain why there is such a strong relationship between sleep deprivation, obesity, and diabetes.  The research team found that during the time that the participants were not getting enough sleep and were following an erratic sleep schedule, their metabolism slowed down and their blood glucose spiked after they ate.  Extrapolating these results means that not sleeping enough and not sleeping in accordance with your bodies biological clock could add as much as 10 pounds a year all by itself.

Unfortunately, this type of erratic sleep-deprived schedule is no longer truly limited to those who work off hours.  As a culture, we are quick to sacrifice sleep and generally do not consider what kind of consequences we are subjecting our bodies to in both the short and long term.  We value productivity over good health and expect people to be “on,” available, and even working at all hours of the day and night.  Yet, in the same breath, we worry about the rapid increase in the obesity rate and admonish people for drowsy driving.   While the findings of the study are not conclusive enough to accurately depict how similar circumstances translate to the real word, they should serve as another wake up call.  Sleep is not optional and those who seemingly succeed without it should not be our superheroes.  If we as a country and a culture are serious about turning the tide in the obesity epidemic and making drowsy driving a thing of the past, it starts by changing how we look at sleep once and for all.


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