Sleep Disorders

12 June 2020

The gut – not the brain – causes animals to die from sleep deprivation

A Harvard study on fruit flies and mice found a chemical substance in the gut that contributes to death from a lack of sleep.

  • Harvard neuroscientists discovered high levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the guts of fruit flies and mice that died from sleep deprivation
  • ROS can cause cell damage which leads to oxidative stress
  • Test subjects were able to survive sleep deprivation when ROS accumulation was prevented

It’s a universal fact that every creature in the animal kingdom – humans included – needs sleep to survive. Why exactly still eludes science, but a Harvard study by neuroscientists has pinpointed the probable cause of death when sleep deprivation occurs.

In humans, sleep deprivation tends to be a symptom of another disease rather than a disease in itself. According to the Department of Neurology at Columbia University, it can affect your memory, cause inattentiveness, make you weak against infections and more prone to mental health problems.

It can also increase your risk of mental illness, stroke, heart disease and cause hallucinations in extreme cases. 

QUIZ: Are you sleep-deprived? 

“When we think of sleep, we usually think of the brain because the nervous system generates sleep; we dream during this time and overwhelming mental fog follows even a single night of sleep restriction,” says one of the lead scientists in the study's video abstract – Dragana Rogulja, assistant professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.

“But can sleep really be all about the brain? We asked, what do sleep-deprived animals die from?”

Using fruit flies and mice, they exposed their test subjects to environments that would prevent sleep and then autopsied their organs to look for any changes. As the test subjects started dying from the lack of sleep, the scientists noticed a massive spike in reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the gut. These chemical substances cause cell damage that in turn causes oxidative stress, which could be a cause of the deaths. 

In the fruit flies, they tried to "rescue" them with antioxidants that target the gut, which resulted in them living out their normal life-span despite the sleep deprivation. The ROS accumulation also decreased and damage cleared when the test subjects were allowed to sleep again. 

READ: Banishing pandemic worries for a good night's sleep

Watch an interview with the lead scientists below.

The results of this study could help find another link between poor sleep and poor health. However, the scientists add that they need to find out more about what causes the spike in ROS accumulation in the gut, and if it might be triggered by the brain. 

This isn’t the first study to link the gut to sleep. One study from Nova Southeastern University published last year in PLOS ONE found a link between good sleep and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome diversity. Our guts can influence our mental and physical health and vice versa, and thus poor sleep can be detrimental to the gut.

So, having a regular sleep schedule with an average of seven to eight hours of shuteye a night is just another part of maintaining a healthy body and mind. 

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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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