The Uneven Health Toll of Sleep Deprivation

  • 2017-08-03
  • The Atlantic

Compared to whites, African Americans are more likely to suffer from a constellation of health problems referred to as “cardiovascular and metabolic diseases:” high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Things like diet, exercise, and smoking contribute to those conditions, but when researchers control for those behaviors, the disparity persists. Now scientists are examining an unexpected factor that could be driving these disparities in heart disease: sleep.

Think of sleep as a time when the body tidies up its hormonal systems. People who consistently don’t get enough sleep have increases in ghrelin, a hunger hormone, and decreases in leptin, a hormone that helps people feel sated. That might lead to increased eating during the day. Even if it doesn’t, sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on other key hormones and proteins, like insulin and the inflammatory markers C-reactive protein and interleukin-6—which are, in turn, linked to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

David Curtis, a human development researcher at Auburn University, decided to try to determine whether differences in sleep could explain some of these racial disparities in cardiometabolic diseases.