DNA is the precious blueprint for life. It is literally the fibre of your being, and damaging it is serious business. While your cells are capable of repairing a certain amount of DNA damage—in fact, normal metabolic processes result in thousands of replication mistakes in your body each day—there’s only so much they can repair.
Researchers have long been puzzling about the causal link between poor sleep and conditions ranging from accelerated aging to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We know there’s a strong correlation between sleep loss and these illnesses, but for a long time, we didn’t know why. Though the exact mechanisms are far from clear, recent research has shed a lot of light on this relationship.
One important way DNA damage occurs is via "oxidative stress." This happens when chemicals called prooxidants outweigh the antioxidant capacity of your cells. (This is where all the buzz about antioxidant-rich kale comes from). Various factors can contribute to this process, like smoking, sun exposure, and stress, which receive tons of well-deserved attention in the media. Recent work has brought sleep to the forefront of research on gene damage, particularly in brain cells.
Scientists often use animal models to study the effects of sleep deprivation. In one study, rats exposed to sleep loss show damage in the genes that make up their brain and blood. Another study found that sleep loss led to damage in cells that make up rats’ livers, lungs, and small intestines. An extensive, in-depth review of research in this area confirmed that sleep loss promotes oxidative stress.
There are a number of reasons this could be the case, all of which centre around a lack of sleep hampering the body’s ability to repair errors in DNA replication. For one thing, we know that sleep loss hugely contributes to stress, which promotes inflammation and gene damage. One interesting finding came out of a study on shift-workers: it seems that people with disturbed or irregular sleep schedules show decreased levels of melatonin, which is not only a sleep-inducing hormone but an important antioxidant. This finding is helping researchers explain the long-observed link between cancer and working at night.
All this goes to show that, if you skimp on sleep, there’s no sense in downing kale smoothies and slathering on sunscreen. Ultimately, no matter how many superfood cocktails we consume, there is no substitute for regular, quality rest.
Luckily, there’s plenty you can do to address sleep problems. Check out more of our Sleep Centre blog for an arsenal of tips on improving your sleep, stop by a Regal outlet near you, or pay a visit to your healthcare professional if you think you might have a sleep disorder.