Epigenetic Zs: Could a bad night’s sleep alter your genes?

Screen Shot at PM

One thing’s for sure — sleep is still largely a mystery. We’re still not exactly sure why we do it. The more activity we perform or the longer we stay awake, the so-called ‘sleep pressure’ builds up, which is one of the major reasons for the adenosine hypothesis of sleep maintenance. The more sleep — and lack of sleep — have been investigated, the more correlations have been made with health concerns ranging from heart disease and early death to metabolic disorders. The exact and precise causes for these problems have not received a great deal of study — for example, is a general lack of sleep causing the body to poorly maintain itself? Well new research on the topic has shown that a great deal of epigenetic changes occur in our genome by suffering from a lack of sleep.

Our ‘clock’ genes

Our bodies, and indeed the genome of every animal it is suspected, have a core set of genes which help determine nocturnal and diurnal cycles, sleep and wakefulness, and maintenance of physiological systems (the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic systems). We have several genes which have been identified as our core ‘clock’ genes (such as CYC (BMAL1), CRY1,2, and PER1,2); I’ve added a piece here which discusses the interaction of these.

Epigenetic changes occur as a result of methylation of DNA in certain patterns. The recent research from scientists in Sweden and Germany showed that epigenetic methylation of CRY1 promoter occurred after just one night of total sleep deprivation. There were also statistically significant epigenetic methylation changes in two regions of PER1, and gene expression in BMAL1 was found to be reduced. The study authors concluded

…a single night of wakefulness can alter the epigenetic and transcriptional profile of core circadian clock genes in key metabolic tissues. Tissue-specific clock alterations could explain why shift work may disrupt metabolic integrity…

Don’t lose sleep over losing sleep just yet — the researchers used 15 study participants, which is a vanishingly small study group to make large-scale population decisions from. But some of this small sample size effect is captured in the results of the blood work they took from the participants, where they measured cortisol and blood glucose. Even though the two parameters achieved statistical significance, the variance of the mean of the two values exceeded the average differences between the sleep-deprived subjects and the control (allowed-to-sleep) subjects. What seems clear from the measurements made of clock gene expression, however, is that sleep deprivation is associated with changes in the genome of adipose (fat) and muscle tissue.

Related article:  Is crowdsourcing key to finding cures for genetic-based diseases like depression?

What the study authors also noted was that the epigenetic changes were of a different effect size between the fat and muscle tissue, which has led to the suggestion that some chronic diseases that have heightened risk factors with lack of sleep such as obesity and type 2 diabetes may be related to the ‘clock desynchrony‘ between the fat tissues of the body and the more energetic muscle tissues. But their study wasn’t designed or powered to detect or answer this question directly.

The authors readily acknowledged that they aren’t sure how pernicious or enduring these effects are, or whether a couple nights’ worth of ‘make-up’ sleep can reverse the epigenetic changes. These results aren’t as nihilistic as have been reported. And the reality is that everyone experiences periods of extended wakefulness from time to time, so perhaps our bodies’ epigenetic changes also include some positive effects which help us adapt and respond under pressure.

Ben Locwin, Ph.D., M.B.A., M.S. is a contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project and is an author of a wide variety of scientific articles for books and magazines. He is also a neuroscience researcher and consultant for a many industries including food and nutrition, pharmaceutical, psychological, and academic. Follow him at @BenLocwin.

Outbreak
Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
Video: Test everyone – Slovakia goes its own way to control COVID

Video: Test everyone – Slovakia goes its own way to control COVID

As Europe sees record coronavirus cases and deaths, Slovakia is testing its entire adult population. WSJ's Drew Hinshaw explains how ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
favicon

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend