Sleep-deprived Canadians risking serious long-term health problems: scientists

Scientists have some advice for sleep-deprived Canadians: wake up – and go to bed.

Surveys show millions of us don’t get the recommended eight hours of shut-eye per night, and that doesn’t just mean we feel groggy and sluggish in the morning. Research has increasingly been showing that over time, short or disrupted sleep can have a devastating impact on our health – body and mind.

READ MORE: What are the common sleep disorders keeping Canadians awake?

A landmark study at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital is investigating how sleep affects the brain. Dr. Andrew Lim says his research has already linked lack of sleep, or sleep fragmentation, such as waking up in the middle of the night, to stroke and cognitive decline in older patients.

“What we found was those with the most fragmented sleep also had the smallest volumes in the frontal lobes, which is an area of the brain that’s important for higher thought. Waking up a lot at night seems to be associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease over time.”

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For the next two decades, Lim will try to quantify that link in one of the biggest sleep studies ever undertaken.

”What we’re doing, is we’re asking for up to 4,000 volunteers in Ontario to take devices home to measure their sleep in their own homes. And then take a look at damage to – to the brain, and then to long-term cognitive outcomes.”

How sleep affects our health

As Canadians age, our understanding of the link between sleep and brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s will affect millions of lives.

“Even in people who didn’t have Alzheimer’s disease already, people who were seemingly cognitively normal, of those, it was the individuals who had the worst sleep, who woke up the most at night, who had … the highest risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Lim told 16×9.

READ MORE: Canadian doctor shares her tips for falling asleep and staying asleep

Researchers at the University of Chicago have found evidence that sleep deprivation affects the body in ways most of us have never considered.

“If you don’t sleep, there’re harmful effects on your metabolism, on every cell you have in your body,” Dr. Esra Tasali said.

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Fifteen years ago, Tasali found that sleep deprivation can increase your risk of diabetes, and it can happen almost immediately.

READ MORE: What you need to know about sleep deprivation

“We took healthy volunteers and sleep deprived them in the laboratory, and they showed as if they were in the pre-diabetic state after sleep deprivation. This was only after one week of sleep deprivation and it wasn’t total sleep deprivation it was four and a half hours in bed. Sleep deprivation, short sleep duration, increases your risk for type 2 diabetes.”

How sleep affects our bodies

Tasali is now probing how insufficient sleep can affect our metabolism, meaning our body’s efficiency at processing food. Decreases in metabolism tie into all kinds of secondary problems, like obesity and heart disease.

Brian Lee is a subject in Tasali’s study. Researchers are monitoring whether his sleep patterns are affecting his metabolism and his weight.

“They were looking for someone who got around six to seven hours of sleep a night,” Lee said. “And that’s around what I average, and I don’t have any problems sleeping through the night.”

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READ MORE: 8 reasons why you should aim for 8 hours of sleep tonight

But Tasali says that’s precisely the problem. Many people think they can get by on fewer than eight hours rest, but they don’t realize the damage they’re doing to their bodies.

“In the past, it was thought that if you were to be sleep deprived you will … be less alert, you will have cognitive deficits. But now, we know that it also affects your body, your metabolism, how your body regulates your cardiovascular system.”

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Tasali says not getting enough sleep can even cause people to make bad food choices.

“Sleep deprivation can make you more hungry, craving for foods that you wouldn’t normally crave for all the time, like sugar.”

READ MORE: Here’s why your sleepless night is giving you the munchies

The good news is there is evidence that shows that the negative effects of sleep deprivation can be reversed.

Tasali points to one of the most consistent causes of sleep deprivation among North Americans who are constantly plugged into the internet, their jobs and their social networks.

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“All these electronics are sort of pushing us towards being sleep deprived,” she said. “So turn off your iPhone, iPad, or all the other devices, or TV after a certain period of time. That works the best.”

16×9’s “The Cost of Sleep” airs Saturday, Apr. 2, 2016 at 7pm.

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