Inflammation can be an efficient way to respond to a disease or injury. If we have an ankle sprain, it swells in order to protect the area and start the healing process. When we become sick, inflammation triggers the necessary bodily responses in order to fight the virus or infection. When the inflammatory response is temporary, it is productive and perfectly normal. However, when the inflammation is chronic it can be problematic. Inflammation is a symptom of many chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Thus, it is important to try to use inflammation as a useful tool when needed, but not allow it to accumulate to an extent that it may trigger a chronic condition. Sleep is one way in which we can help our bodies to have the time it needs to regulate inflammation.
The science behind sleep deprivation and inflammation
Sleep deprivation can increase markers of inflammation. These markers (cytokines, interleukin-6, and C-reactive protein) are associated with an elevated risk for renal disease, heart disease, and diabetes. Interestingly, inconsistent sleep also increases these same inflammatory markers. So, while we may be getting enough sleep per week, on average, the daily fluctuations of getting six hours on Monday, eight hours on Tuesday, etc. are still potentially harmful. Going to bed and waking up at consistent times throughout the week will help your body to be able to predict your schedule, and work efficiently while you sleep.
Blood pressure is another way in which sleep deprivation is linked to inflammation. During normal, healthy sleep our blood pressure drops approximately 10-20% and blood vessels relax. This phenomenon is called nocturnal blood pressure dipping and is helpful for multiple aspects of our health. When we do not sleep as long as we should, we cut short this drop in blood pressure, triggering cells in the blood vessel walls to activate the inflammatory process.
Lastly, short sleep interferes with the body’s ability to clean out debris. When we do not get enough sleep, our body does not have adequate time to clean out proteins linked to brain cell damage called beta-amyloids. By virtue of not cleaning out all of the debris from the previous day, we eventually have a build-up of beta-amyloid levels, which impairs non-REM slow-wave sleep. This makes sleeping more challenging and can interfere with brain function, making it harder to consolidate memories.
How does sleep impact blood sugar and inflammation?
Our previous article outlined the ways in which sleep impacts blood sugar and how to can improve our glucose levels after a night of short sleep. In short, when we have a night of inadequate sleep or abnormally long sleep, our sense of hunger (triggered by the hormone ghrelin), sense of fullness (signaled by the hormone leptin), and glucose metabolism are all disrupted.
The increased food consumption and decreased sensation of satisfaction/fullness can have us more likely to make poor food choices and overeat. This overeating is likely accompanied by an increase in sugar. Short sleep already hampers our glucose metabolism and this increase in sugar intake only compounds the problem. Over time, this can trigger a challenging cycle in which the body becomes less sensitive to insulin, leading to inflammation. The inflammation that is created contributes to even more insulin resistance. This insulin-resistant/inflammation cycle can increase inflammatory markers that are highly correlated with the development of type 2 diabetes. While this process may seem very doom-and-gloom, there are ways in which we can help to improve our metabolic health and reduce inflammation.
What can we do about it?
The body is incredibly adept at controlling our inflammation when we are consistent and provide it with the necessary time to work. Getting to sleep and setting our alarms for the same times each day (yes, even on weekends) is a great place to start. Anything we can do to try and get those seven to nine hours of recommended sleep each night will help our cause. Practicing healthy habits while we are awake, like eating properly and exercising, will help to reduce the inflammatory load that your body has to clean up overnight. By limiting foods that are high in sugar (or high-glycemic carbohydrates) we can reduce the inflammatory response they create. Controlling our blood sugar to reduce sudden and dramatic spikes (perhaps with a GOOD IDEA) can also help not only reduce inflammation but also improve our metabolic health. Taking small steps toward improving our sleep (e.g., going to sleep 30 minutes earlier) and blood sugar (e.g., swapping a mid-afternoon candy for a healthy alternative) can have a significant impact on reducing inflammation.
Author: Dr. Colleen Gulick