A Reason to Count Sheep: Is Sleep Deprivation a Global Driver of Metabolic Disease?

| October 24, 2012 | 0 Comments

Although sleep deprivation trends are varied in the developing world, they have been steadily rising over the past few decades.

In an increasingly fast-paced world, getting a good night’s sleep is becoming less and less of a priority. Levels of sleep-related disorders are skyrocketing in both the developed and developing worlds.  While our own experience tells us that getting too little sleep can impair our ability to function and slows down metabolism, recent studies are beginning to establish a firm link between sleep disorders and metabolic disease.  Because sleep deprivation is emerging as a significant driver of obesity and diabetes, it is imperative that strategies aimed at improving global sleep habits be developed.

A recent survey of sleep-related problems in African and Asian countries suggests that we are in the midst of a “global sleeplessness epidemic”.  Saverio Stranges, the leading author of the study, asserted that levels of “sleep problems in the developing world are far higher than previously thought.” There are currently an estimated 150 million adults in developing world who have sleep disorders (16.6% of those surveyed).   Interestingly, the authors found striking variation in sleep habits between countries. In Vietnam, 37.6 percent of the women and 28.5 percent of the men reported sleep problems. Meanwhile, Tanzania, Kenya, India and Ghana saw rates of between 4.6 percent and 12.7 percent.  Disturbingly, the study surveyed mostly people living in rural settings, and Stranges cautioned: “We might expect even higher figures for people living in urban areas.”

So why is this “sleeplessness epidemic” so worrisome?  In the past few years, a bevy of scientific work has linked lack of sleep to obesity and diabetes. Buxton et al. simulated the effects of sleep deprivation and disruption of circadian rhythm (the normal 24 h cycle by which the body functions) over the course of 6 weeks in human participants. During the 6-week disruption, the participants’ glucose control went haywire, and resting metabolic rate was lowered significantly. These observed effects are precursors to both obesity and diabetes.  Knutson et al. wrote a review which summarized the results of past sleep studies, and shows that there is a link between sleeping fewer than six hours a night and having an higher body mass index (BMI).  “These findings show that sleeping poorly can increase a person’s risk of developing obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease,” Knutson said in the statement.  Due in part to these recent studies, sleep deprivation is now emerging as a major driver of NCD in the developing world, one that must be considered in subsequent health interventions.

Levels of sleep deprivation are skyrocketing globally, in parallel with obesity and diabetes rates (not to mention mental health disorders).  The new research linking lack of sleep with metabolic disease suggests the need for new comprehensive strategies aimed at improving sleeping habits, in addition to traditional approaches to combat obesity and diabetes, which include dietary changes and pharmacological interventions.  As a global community, we can start with education campaigns, outlining the harmful consequences of sleep deprivation.  Yet ultimately, more funding needs to be diverted towards studying how sleep disruption affects the human body, so that efficient sleep habit interventions can be designed. If we hope to curb metabolic disease rates in the coming decade, issues of lack of sleep must be addressed immediately.  In a world where obesity rates are expected to rise to 50% by 2030, now more than ever, we all have a reason to go to bed on time.


  1. Saverio Stranges, William Tigbe, Francesc Xavier Gómez-Olivé, Margaret Thorogood, Ngianga-Bakwin Kandala. “Sleep Problems: An Emerging Global Epidemic? Findings From the INDEPTH WHO-SAGE Study Among More Than 40,000 Older Adults From 8 Countries Across Africa and Asia.” SLEEP, 2012; DOI: 10.5665/sleep.2012
  2. OM Buxton, et. al., “Adverse Metabolic Consequences in Humans of Prolonged Sleep Restriction Combined with Circadian Disruption,” Science Translational Medicine, 4:1-11, 2012.
  3. Knutson, K., K. Spiegel, P. Penev, and E. Vancauter. “The Metabolic Consequences of Sleep Deprivation.” Sleep Medicine Reviews 11.3 (2007): 163-78. Print.


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