Physiology Friday #109: Can Exercise Prevent the Negative Effects of Insufficient Sleep?
For optimal health, we need proper sleep, but exercise may protect the body and brain from the adverse health effects of not getting enough shuteye.
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We all need sleep — about 7-9 hours each night for optimal health. This is supported by numerous different health organizations and backed by epidemiological data showing that a short sleep duration (<7 hours per night) is associated with a greater risk for a variety of adverse health outcomes and diseases.
But, no surprise, about 50% of adults don’t get enough sleep. Even those of us who try to get a nightly 8 hours still fail to get sufficient shuteye on occasion. While it’s nothing to stress about, it is interesting to think about potential strategies that might be able to prevent some of the adverse effects of insufficient sleep on different aspects of health — whether it be cognitive performance, memory, cardiovascular function, athletic performance, mitochondrial function, or metabolism.
Several studies have investigated this question. Can exercise “protect” you against the acute effects of insufficient sleep? Below are a handful of studies that show some pretty interesting data suggesting that, at least in the short term, exercise might be an effective “medicine” for poor sleep habits.
Heart and blood vessels
One study (Sauvet 2017) investigated if exercise could protect against blood vessel dysfunction (endothelial dysfunction) caused by 40 hours of total sleep deprivation (staying awake for 40 hours straight). Seven weeks of combined continuous and interval exercise (i.e., high-intensity interval training or HIIT) was shown to prevent the decline in microvascular endothelial function following total sleep deprivation and after a day of recovery sleep.
This effect was attributed to a reduced acute inflammatory response; inflammatory cytokines including IL-6 and TNF-α were lower after sleep deprivation that was preceded by exercise training compared to sleep deprivation without exercise. In the same study, arterial stiffness was also increased after 40 hours of sleep deprivation but was prevented when preceded by the seven weeks of exercise training. Pretty neat. This study suggests that if you get fitter, you might be more resilient to the effects of sleep deprivation.
Metabolism and protein synthesis
Several investigations have provided evidence that exercise may represent an effective countermeasure against the pathological effects of sleep deprivation on other measures of health and performance. Two weeks of HIIT attenuated insulin resistance and partially prevented the increase in glucose and free fatty acids after 24 hours of sleep deprivation in healthy men compared to when they underwent sleep deprivation before exercise training (Souza 2017). Similarly, performing regular HIIT during moderate sleep restriction (sleep was restricted to 4 hours/night for 5 nights) prevented the decline in myofibrillar protein synthesis (Saner 2020) and partially protected against adverse changes in glucose tolerance, mitochondrial function, and circadian rhythms in healthy young men (Saner 2021).
Brain health and inflammation
Performing aerobic exercise training (3 sessions/week for 7 weeks) was shown to protect against impairments in sustained attention after 40 hours of total sleep deprivation (Sauvet 2020). In a study conducted in rodents, exercise training prevented inflammation in the brain and peripheral body tissues after sleep deprivation (Chennaoui 2015).
Regular treadmill exercise training also protected against memory impairments and partially prevented the decrease in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) after 24 hours of sleep deprivation (Zagaar 2013). These studies seem to suggest that aerobic exercise training and improved aerobic fitness may at least partially protect against the negative effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance and aspects of metabolism and circadian health.
This was a very brief overview of some studies done in this area. While nothing can replace sleep, it appears that, if you’re going to occasionally experience a night or two of poor slumber, you should make exercise a priority before and even during.
Unfortunately, poor sleep also reduces the motivation to exercise…so it’s a pretty mean downward spiral. But, instead of a cup of coffee before an all-nighter, perhaps go for a 30-60 minute run or do some hill sprints. It might make a big difference in performance the next day, and could even keep you healthier.
Thanks for reading. See you next Friday.
1. Sauvet F, Arnal PJ, Tardo-Dino PE, et al. Protective effects of exercise training on endothelial dysfunction induced by total sleep deprivation in healthy subjects. International Journal of Cardiology. 2017;232:76-85. doi:10.1016/j.ijcard.2017.01.049
2. de Souza JFT, Dáttilo M, de Mello MT, Tufik S, Antunes HKM. High-intensity interval training attenuates insulin resistance induced by sleep deprivation in healthy males. Front Physiol. 2017;8:992. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.00992
3. Saner NJ, Lee MJ-C, Kuang J, et al. Exercise mitigates sleep-loss-induced changes in glucose tolerance, mitochondrial function, sarcoplasmic protein synthesis, and diurnal rhythms. Molecular Metabolism. 2021;43:101110. doi:10.1016/j.molmet.2020.101110
4. Saner NJ, Lee MJ ‐C., Pitchford NW, et al. The effect of sleep restriction, with or without high‐intensity interval exercise, on myofibrillar protein synthesis in healthy young men. J Physiol. 2020;598(8):1523-1536. doi:10.1113/JP278828
5. Zagaar M, Dao A, Alhaider I, Alkadhi K. Regular treadmill exercise prevents sleep deprivation-induced disruption of synaptic plasticity and associated signaling cascade in the dentate gyrus. Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience. 2013;56:375-383. doi:10.1016/j.mcn.2013.07.011
6. Sauvet F, Arnal PJ, Tardo-Dino P-E, et al. Beneficial effects of exercise training on cognitive performances during total sleep deprivation in healthy subjects. Sleep Medicine. 2020;65:26-35. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2019.07.007
7. Chennaoui M, Gomez-Merino D, Drogou C, et al. Effects of exercise on brain and peripheral inflammatory biomarkers induced by total sleep deprivation in rats. J Inflamm. 2015;12(1):56. doi:10.1186/s12950-015-0102-3
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