Chronic sleep loss – the effects

Chronic sleep loss – the effects

There’s now another reason not to burn the candle at both ends – research is suggesting that chronic sleep loss may actually destroy healthy brain connections.

We’ve known for a while that sleep loss increases the risk of

  • heart disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • obesity
  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • weakened immune response to infection

However new research has shown that chronic sleep loss may cause the brain’s natural ‘housekeeping’ to malfunction.
The brain’s housekeeping is carried out by glial cells, and the research looked at two in particular

  • Astrocyte cells – these remove unnecessary connections in the brain to keep its wiring in order
  • Microglial cells – these patrol the brain, removing damaged cells and detritus

Both of these are vital functions – without them our brains would start to clog up with unnecessary connections and old, damaged cells.

The level of these cells and their activity is controlled by a specific gene. Research has now shown that this gene becomes more active after chronic sleep loss.

The team found that the astrocyte cells were to be active in one in every seventeen of the synapses in the brain. In brains following chronic sleep loss they were active in one in seven. It seems that sleep loss can directly result in astrocyte cells breaking down more of the brain’s connections and pathways

More worryingly for the researchers though was the increase in the microglial cells and their activity. Long term increases in microglial activity are seen in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. This may explain the increased risk of dementia in people with chronic sleep loss.

What isn’t clear is whether or not increasing the amount of sleep can protect people from the effects of previous sleep loss. What is clear though is the link between sleep loss and mental health may be even more direct than was first thought.

If you’re worried about your lack of sleep then you can find my sleep tips here.

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