Science of Sleep: Sleep Debt Changes Metabolism

sleep debt changes

New research finds that sleep debt changes our metabolism. In both people and rats subjected to chronic sleep deprivation researchers could find markers of “tiredness” in blood samples.

Sleep, we all need it. Lack of sleep is known to increase the risk of some diseases like heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Though we know much about sleep, researchers still don’t have a clear idea of how sleep debt affects the body’s systems increasing the risk of some diseases. Now new research from Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania discover that a chronic sleep debt changes lipid metabolism and increases oxidative stress.

Having a Sleep Debt Changes our Metabolism

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In this study the research team subjected both rats and people to chronic sleep restriction over five days. The duration was meant to simulate real world conditions of not getting enough sleep over the course of a work week.

Blood samples were collected from both rats and people both when they had sufficient hours of sleep and after sleep deprivation for five days. From these blood samples researchers made a comprehensive profile of metabolites in the blood, both when well rested and after being sleep deprived. When researchers compared the samples they found that having a sleep debt changes metabolism.

In rats researchers found 38 metabolites that were only found in blood samples from sleep deprived subjects. Most of these metabolites were lipids. In sleep deprived people many of the same metabolites were found and a greater fraction of those was lipids. Notably, seven types of the lipids found were of a type associated with oxidative stress, meaning there was a shift in the balance between antioxidants and free radicals in the body, possibly causing inflammation. Researchers also found altered levels of neurotransmitters and gut metabolites, probably from changes in the metabolism of gut bacteria.

Two specific metabolites diacylglycerol 36:3 and oxalic acid was greatly reduced in blood from sleep deprived people and rats. The metabolites returned to baseline after the subjects caught up on their sleep. Oxalic acid is a waste product from processing food and diacylglycerol is used when your body makes fat, triglycerides, for storage in the body.

This is consistent with other studies that suggest that one of the functions of sleep is restorative, involving clearance of metabolites in the brain and reinstating an antioxidant balance in peripheral tissues. Sleep loss, on the other hand, induces an oxidative metabolic state,” says Amita Sehgal coauthor of the research.

This find means it might be possible to make a blood test to determine if a person suffers from dangerous sleep deprivation putting them at a higher risk of diseases and to see if a pilot or truck driver are well rested enough to work.

Image credit: Merlijn Hoek via, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0