- Research shows strong links between sleep and telomeres, which are DNA material found within our cells.
- Sleep appears to have significant influence over the length of telomeres.
- Longer sleep has been associated with longer telomere length.
Sleeping well is an essential part of our longevity. Sleep protects our mental and physical health across our lifespan. And a routine of plentiful, restful sleep helps to keep in check many of the forces that accelerate the biological aging process.
During sleep, the body undertakes significant cellular repair and rejuvenation, the brain eliminates harmful waste and toxins. Our nervous system moves into low, resting, gear, stress hormones drop to their lowest levels, and our immune system reboots. Our cognitive and psychological health benefits from memory processing, hormone production and regulation, and the cellular renewal that all take place during sleep.
When we don’t get enough consistent, high-quality sleep, we miss out on the full impact of sleep’s deeply restorative powers. Poor sleep increases inflammation, which is a powerful driver of biological aging and a significant factor in age-related disease, from heart disease to cancer to neurodegenerative diseases. Poor sleep—even a single night of it—appears to directly affect the aging of our cells and increase the activity of genes that drive cellular aging.
We still have so much to learn about how sleep can affect aging. One area of research that’s received a lot of attention over the past decade is the relationship between sleep and a significant marker of biological age: telomere length.
If you haven’t heard of telomeres, you’re not alone. Telomeres are DNA material found within our cells, and the condition of telomeres—specifically, the length of telomeres–can provide important indications about our biological age. As a growing body of research shows, there are strong links between telomeres and sleep.
What are telomeres?
Telomeres are structures of DNA that sit at the ends of our chromosomes. Chromosomes, as you’ll recall from high school biology, are strands of bundled-up DNA found inside our cells. Chromosomes help to ensure that DNA is passed along correctly as cells divide and replicate, making new cells to replace old cells that have worn out their useful lifespan.
Telomeres function as a protective cap for chromosomes, helping to avoid damage to DNA and to keep DNA information intact.
Telomeres are an important marker for biological age—here’s why
When cells divide and replicate, the telomeres at the end of our chromosomes divide, too. Over time, telomeres become shorter. Shorter telomeres offer less protection for the DNA within our chromosomes and contribute to the aging of cells. Shorter telomere length is associated with higher mortality risks, and with greater risks for chronic and serious diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
Telomeres shorten gradually as we age. But there is a range of factors that appear to influence telomere length, either accelerating the shortening of telomeres or helping to preserve their length over time. These factors include:
- Weight and BMI (obesity, and larger waist circumference, are linked to shorter telomere length)
- Physical activity levels
- Lifestyle habits, including smoking
Sleep is another factor that appears to have a significant influence on the length of telomeres.
The relationship between sleep and telomere length
When we talk about sleep, we’re talking about a whole range of elements that comprise our sleep, including how much we sleep, how well we sleep, when we sleep, how consistent our sleep schedules are, how aligned our sleep-wake patterns are with our chronotype. All of these factors—and the presence of clinical sleep disorders—appear to affect telomere length.
Sleep duration. A growing body of research has shown links between sleep duration—the amount of sleep we get at night—and telomere length. Broadly speaking, longer sleep has been associated with longer telomere length, in a number of different populations, including people with and without chronic health conditions, in both men and women, and across different age groups.
A 2019 study examined data from the Women’s Health initiative on more than 3,000 post-menopausal women and found that every hour of additional sleep beyond five hours, telomere length was significantly longer. The researchers found that on average, women who slept less than seven hours a night had telomere length that was equivalent to women who were two years older.
Some research has also found that shorter sleep duration is linked to shorter telomeres in children.
Sleep is far more than a tool to elevate your productivity and your quality of life in the here and now. It is also an investment in your long-term future, your health, and your well-being for years to come.
Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., DABSM