Sleep Deprivation As Bad As Stress For Your Body

By Amir Khan on July 2, 2012 8:16 AM EDT

Sleeping
Severe sleep deprivation results in an immune response that equals what the body goes through when stressed, according to a new study (Photo: Reuters / Luke Macgregor)

Severe sleep deprivation results in an immune response that equals what the body goes through when stressed, according to a new study, published in the journal Sleep on Saturday. Although the study was small, researchers found that white blood cell counts increased as people get less sleep.

"Future research will reveal the molecular mechanisms behind this immediate stress response and elucidate its role in the development of diseases associated with chronic sleep loss," Katrin Ackermann, study author and postdoctoral researcher at the Eramus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam in the Netherlands, said in a statement. "If confirmed with more data, this will have implications for clinical practice and for professions associated with long-term sleep loss, such as rotating shift work."

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Researchers found that people who were awake for 29 hours had an increased level of granulocytes, a kind of white blood cell. Granulocytes typically vary throughout the day, but this rhythm was lost in sleep deprived study patients.

"The granulocytes reacted immediately to the physical stress of sleep loss and directly mirrored the body's stress response," Ackerman said.

Sleep deprivation not only causes afternoon crashes of sleepiness, it also impacts long-term health and increases risk for diabetes and heart disease, experts said. Everyday life makes it difficult to get a good night's sleep, experts say.

"The modern condition of excess work, excess pressure, no sleep -- all this disruption -- we can't adapt well to it metabolically," Dr. Orfeu Buxton, CDC researcher and sleep researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told WebMD. "This is a maladaptive response to modern life."

However, just because many workers do not meet the National Sleep Foundation's recommendations doesn't mean they are sleep deprived, Dr. Michael Breus, author of the book "Beauty Sleep," told CNN. Sleep researchers put too much emphasis on the amount of sleep instead of focusing on what's really important.

"Oftentimes, we only think of sleep in terms of minutes -- but that's really the quantity of sleep. In fact, there's a quality of sleep," he said. "If you have sleep apnea and you stop breathing through the night, you might feel really tired in the morning even though you've gotten eight hours. Those eight hours were horrible, light, crappy sleep."

In order to ensure a better quality of sleep, people should try to go to bed at the same time every day, create a relaxing bedroom environment, avoid watching television or eating a large meal right before bed and turn off their cell phone, according to WebMD.

"Any degree of sleep deprivation impairs performance or mood," Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, told WebMD. "Our society has got to learn to respect sleep as biologically imperative. Getting a good night's sleep is as important as exercising regularly and eating a good diet."

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