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Getting seven to eight hours of sleep every night has long been the prescription for optimal health. Now, thanks to a 2015 Swedish study, we know that losing even one night of sleep can lead to glucose intolerance and cause genes that control the biological clocks in your cells to fall out of sync, harming the body’s metabolic processes.

Researchers from Uppsala University and Karolinska Institutet studied 15 healthy men during two 42-hour lab sessions. During one, the men were allowed to sleep for more than eight hours; during the other, they were kept awake. After each session, the researchers collected samples of the men’s muscle and fat tissues.

Their findings? Not only did sleep loss alter the clock genes in the men’s muscle and fat cells, but it altered them in different ways.

“These clock genes are known to be important regulators of metabolism,” explains Uppsala University researcher Jonathan Cedernaes, MD, PhD. “They also regulate the activity of 5 to 10 percent of all other genes in most of the tissues throughout our bodies. These biological clocks have to run in sync with each other, because various [muscle and fat] tissues are responsible for carrying out different functions in our bodies, and these functions work in concert with each other.”

Cedernaes and his team also measured the men’s glucose levels — both after sleep and after sleep loss — and found that lack of sleep adversely affected the men’s glucose tolerance.

“After one night of sleep loss,” says Cedernaes, “healthy individuals displayed glucose values that in the long term would confer an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

“Compared with an optimal sleep opportunity, one night of sleep loss leads to significant changes. It’s possible that acute sleep loss can lead to more long-lasting changes that are not restored even after a single night of recovery sleep.”

All the more reason to make sleep a priority, starting tonight.

For a Q&A with the study’s lead author, see “Sleep & Genes: Q&A With Jonathan Cedernaes, MD, PhD” on Monday, May 16, 2016.

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