Lifestyle changes, like sleep deprivation, can affect how our children’s genes are expressed and negatively impact health. Biomedical research is now uncovering the epigenetic changes that occur with inadequate sleep and how important sufficient sleep is for development and disease prevention.
Sleep is a lifestyle factor that significantly contributes to the overall health and development of children, but is often underappreciated and not prioritized in today’s “hustle” culture. Despite this, biomedical research supports the central role of sleep in both physical and mental wellness, and is also uncovering the molecular mechanisms that may be responsible for declining health due to sleep deprivation, including epigenetic mechanisms.
“Biomedical research supports the central role of sleep in both physical and mental wellness.”
It has been long established that nature and nurture often both play a part in an individual’s health and life outcomes, highlighting that at least some of these outcomes are predetermined at birth. But, it is becoming increasingly clear that nurture can actually alter nature – that is, external factors such as an individual’s environment and lifestyle can have a significant effect on their DNA expression. Sections of DNA, the blueprint for synthesizing proteins, can be ‘turned on or off’.
Scientists’ overall understanding of the mechanisms that control a person’s gene expression is limited, and epigenetic mechanisms are among some of the least well characterized. Proteins can be expressed in the body at higher levels, lower levels, shut off or turned on depending on the person’s environment, developmental stage or lifestyle. One of the ways that protein expression can be increased or decreased in the body is through epigenetic changes to DNA, which changes how actively proteins and other molecules are expressed in the body without changing the sequence or “spelling” of the person’s DNA instruction manual. Epigenetic changes in DNA can last a long time, but importantly, the modifications are not necessarily permanent.
“External factors such as an individual’s environment and lifestyle can have a significant effect on their DNA expression.”
Studies investigating the role of epigenetics in sleep deprivation are in their infancy, but some important discoveries in adult sleep deprivation studies have suggested that epigenetic mechanisms may play a part in dysregulating metabolism and circadian rhythms after inadequate sleep. While it is unclear whether or not these results can be translated to children, parallels observed between sleep and other research fields are helping scientists focus on disease-causing mechanisms that may occur with chronic sleep deprivation and could be reversed by therapies, including medication and sleep training.
For example, a recent study analyzed the brains of over 8,000 children between nine and 10 years of age to identify differences between children that had adequate sleep (between nine and 12 hours per night) and those that received inadequate sleep (less than nine hours per night). The results of the study were striking: children that received inadequate sleep had smaller areas in the brain that regulate attention, memory and inhibition control compared to children with adequate sleep, providing a biological explanation for the increased distraction and decreased memory and self-control that is often observed in sleep-deprived children.
“. . . children that received inadequate sleep had smaller areas in the brain that regulate attention, memory and inhibition control compared to children with adequate sleep.”
The mechanisms by which children with adequate sleep have more gray matter in certain areas of their brain than children lacking adequate sleep are unknown, but some researchers suspect epigenetic changes may play a role. Unfortunately, little research has been performed to assess the epigenetic effects of sleep deprivation, particularly in children. However, based on parallels researchers observe between sleep, epigenetics, neurogenesis and memory processing, experts in the field propose that the generation of new neurons in particular areas of the brain may actually be regulated by epigenetic modifications of DNA that are induced or influenced by sleep.
Importantly, chronic sleep deprivation doesn’t just impact children; it impacts their parents as well. Aside from excessive sleepiness, mood swings and an inability to concentrate, inadequate sleep can negatively impact health in more serious ways, including weight gain and increased incidence of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, cardiovascular disease and mental disorders. In fact, missing just one night of sleep causes epigenetic changes in adult DNA that are associated with increased fat deposition and decreased muscle mass. Researchers look forward to determining what recovery from these epigenetic changes could look like and how long it may take.
“Epigenetic changes in DNA can last a long time, but importantly, the modifications are not necessarily permanent.”
Biomedical research will continue to emphasize the importance of sleep for neurocognitive development in children. Studies have not confirmed that sleep recovery after a period of chronic sleep deprivation will reverse all epigenetic changes that occurred as a result of inadequate sleep, and the degree of reversal may depend on whether or not the body can effectively remove (for example) detrimental deposits, such as arterial plaques, or generate neurons where they are lacking. Despite this degree of uncertainty, it is clear that adequate, restful sleep presents no risk to health and can only improve wellness in sleep-deprived children and their parents.
“Children who lack sleep may experience detrimental impact on brain and cognitive development over that persists over time, UM School of Medicine study finds” (2022) by Deborah Kotz. University of Maryland School of Medicine.