The Link between Sleep Deficit and Adrenal Fatigue

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM

In this hurry-up world, where more and more people are striving to get ahead by getting more done in less and less time, sleep is nearly a rare commodity. In fact, some people view the hours spent in sleep to be wasted hours. However, sleeping less and suffering from sleep deficit may lead to significant health problems. There is also current evidence that not sleeping may increase the speed with which people age.

Sleep Deficits, Aging, and Adrenal Fatigue

Sleep deficit can result in fatigue.A recent study conducted at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology in Los Angeles, CA, revealed signs of biological aging to be increased with only one night of partial sleep deprivation. The subjects for this study were a group of 29 older adults still living in their community. Ages for these adults ranged from 61 to 86 years old. Forty-eight percent of them were male. Over a period of four nights, these adults went through a partial sleep deprivation experiment. The first night was adapting to the setting for the experiment, the next night was uninterrupted sleep. The third night included partial deprivation of sleep for four hours from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.

Finally another night of uninterrupted sleep concluded the experiment. Each morning a blood sample was taken from participants to measure peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) gene expression. This gene, measured using Illumina HT-12 arrays, indicates increased cell damage that may lead to an increased likelihood of aging. The expression of this gene would suggest DNA damage responses, an increase in the senescence- associated secretory phenotype, and an increase in the senescence indicator p16. Increases from baseline values to partial sleep deprivation nights were seen with all of these indicators. These results suggest only one night of partial sleep deficit with older adults may show increased PBMC gene expression suggestive of increased biological aging in this older adult group. The build-up of damage that starts cell cycle arrest and leads to cellular aging was also increased in this group. Findings from this experiment show a causal link between sleep deficits and molecular processes associated with more rapid biological aging. The important events at the cellular level, that are seen with aging and which may add to disease, seem to be very sensitive to sleep deprivation and sleep deficits.

Lead author Dr. Judith Carroll, assistant professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at the UCLA Cousins Center said, “Our data support the hypothesis that one night of not getting enough sleep in older adults activates important biological pathways that promote biological aging.” One of the more frequent causes of adrenal fatigue is sleep deficit. One reason for this finding is the stress resulting from sleep deficit coming from deprivation of adequate sleep. Stress from any source activates an automatic mechanism in our bodies that involves the adrenal glands in a pathway called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This includes the stress resulting from sleep deficits. When people sleep less than optimum amounts, the stress continues to mount. When stress increases, the HPA axis is continually activated. Continued activation of this HPA stress response can lead to depletion of one major hormone involved in successfully dealing with stress: Cortisol. Cortisol helps protect the body from increased adrenal fatigue. Lowered cortisol levels that can come with continuing stress can lead to adrenal fatigue.

However, adrenal fatigue can also lead to difficulty sleeping. There can be many different reasons for sleep difficulty when it comes adrenal fatigue, hypoglycemia, hormone imbalances, and adrenaline rushes just to name a few. Thus, the stress resulting from sleep deficit and the adrenal fatigue that results from stress may set in motion a negative cycle of worsening fatigue and sleep. This increases the likelihood of not only the onset of physical illnesses, but also an increase in cellular aging due to the influence of sleep deficits.

A Holistic Understanding of the Stress Response

Sleep deficit can be controled.Conventional medicine’s model of the body’s stress response leads to an organ-oriented approach to understanding and treatment. Typical treatment regimens under this model focus on what organ shows pathology and isolates that organ with treatment that may not address the root causes of the difficulties suffered by patients. The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response involves systems and organs linked to each other in a functional network. When stress from any source, such as sleep deficits, affects one part of this network, the rest of the network is also affected. Once one aspect of this NEM system is touched by stress, the rest of the system goes into action to counter the effects of this stress.

When understanding and treatment of the body, under continued stress, focuses solely on organ systems and not a complete, functional overview, stress continues to increase and damage, to organ systems and individual cells, builds. This damage, at the cellular level, can lead to increased indicators or aging, as shown in the research outlined at the beginning of this article. Thus, in order to successfully treat stress and to keep its effects from prematurely aging the body, this NEM approach to understanding stress appears to be most effective. This understanding has, and will continue to, lead to more effective treatment approaches to handling stress adequately. The overall health and longevity of people will increase substantially with this approach.

Restoring sleep, in the setting of adrenal fatigue, involves ruling out the many possible causes and finding the underlying culprit. Once uncovered, a proper plan to restore balance through supplementation, diet, exercise, and stress reduction can be put into place to allow the body to heal.

© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

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