2012 was a big year for sleep research.  Research teams across the country published new studies that underlined just how big a role sleep plays in our health.  From increasing our risk factors for serious diseases to discovering that even too much sleep can be hazardous to our health, these research teams helped sleep science make great strides in 2012.  Here are some of the things 2012 taught us about sleep.


Sleep and Our Immune System

The detrimental effect of sustained, long term stress on our physical bodies is well known.  Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, skin problems, chronic pain, diabetes, and suppression of the immune system.  This year, a study published in the journal Sleep  found that sleep deprivation can have a similar effect on our immune system, suppressing it and causing a rise in the white blood cell count of participants.  It only took 29 hours of wakefulness to produce this effect which has real significance for a population where many people are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation.


Sleep and Disease Risk Factors

Previous research has shown an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure when people don’t get enough sleep.   This year, a study presented at the annual Sleep Conference showed that lack of sleep can increase the risk of having a stroke, even in otherwise healthy people.  The link may be attributable to the alteration of hormone levels or the immediate increase in blood pressure that can occur in people who are sleep deprived.


Sleep and Weight

The link between sleep and weight was examined in several studies published or presented last year.  Sleep science has long known that getting too little sleep can lead to weight gain and this year, a pair of studies helped explain why lack of sleep often leads to weight gain.  The first study came from the University of California at Berkeley and indicated that getting too little sleep causes changes in our brains that make it difficult for us to make good food choices.  Another study, presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association found that lack of sleep can also increase the number of calories eaten the following day.  On average, participants who slept 80 minutes less than those in the control group ate an average of 549 calories more than those in the control group.


Sleep and Learning

Almost everyone can remember a time when they stayed up late and skipped sleep in order to spend a little extra time studying.  A study from UCLA showed that this might be the worst possible thing you can do if your aim is to get a good grade.  The study showed that the more sleep high school students skipped, the worse grades they got.  When paired with existing research that shows how sleep deprivation impacts our cognitive function, these findings indicate that getting a good night sleep may be the best thing students can do to get good grades.


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