July 13, 2000 -- Those who must use an alarm to wake up share a common health problem: sleep deprivation. That's according to Mark Mahowald, MD, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center in Minneapolis. The vast majority of Americans fit into the category, he says, and it's nothing to make light of. "Sleep debt is a major problem. ... It impairs performance whether we're aware of it or not."
And now, ongoing research suggests that getting a good night's sleep may play a crucial role in keeping people of all ages healthy, particularly the young.
"We can't say yet that sleep equals youth," says a researcher from the Van Cauter Laboratory in Chicago, who asked that WebMD not use his name. What they can say, based on lab research, is that sleep deprivation in more than 40 healthy 25- to 40-year-olds resulted in the "aging" of a metabolic process known as "glycemic control," or blood sugar control, so that it became identical to that of a 65- to 70-year-old's.
The change in blood sugar control was seen in those who slept less than six and a half hours a night. When they slept longer, their glycemic control returned to normal.
The study has not yet been published because it is not yet complete. But in light of its findings so far, the lab has a new question, the researcher says. "One of the associations we're pursuing is: Diabetes and obesity are epidemic, and is there a connection to sleep loss? Young, healthy subjects should not be getting problems with glycemic control for 30 years." In a similar vein, the Chicago researchers plan to study what effect that restoring sleep quality might have on glycemic control in diabetics who suffer from sleep apnea.
It's clear that getting enough sleep is important. But just how much sleep is enough? WebMD asked the experts and found a range of opinion on the matter.
The Van Cauter researcher says that from his lab's point of view, people need more than eight hours of sleep, but they're not sure what's enough. "It's more than currently thought," the researcher says. "We base that on two things: Do you want to be able to perform optimally and [have] optimal glycemic control?"