“Sleep,” Go the Microbes, “Sleep”

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger, Lee Wrona, VMS Undergrad

While filtering through recent news articles trying to find one that does not involve the Ebola virus, or more recently (and locally), Enterovirus D-68, I came across an interesting new study that reveals that the normal flora of the gut may be on the same biological clocks as their human hosts. As college students, late nights and early mornings are a common part of the experience. And with the holidays quickly approaching, jet lag, paired with long hours traveling around the country, will also soon be common.

In general, both examples can have a strong effect on the amount of sleep a person is able to get. But it’s no mystery that healthy living requires plenty of sleep; lack of sleep is linked to an array of diseases such as obesity, cancer, and heart disease. However, new research suggests that the bacteria that reside in our bodies may also be drastically affected by deviations in our sleep patterns.

In the study, fecal samples from both mice and humans were first collected while the subjects were feeding and sleeping normally. This allowed scientists to observe the routine, day-to-day habits of the microbes in the host. Next, samples were collected at various times throughout the day after feeding and sleeping times were disturbed. Not only did the amount of bacteria fluctuate, but the activity of the bacteria was also altered. For example, the overall composition of microbes in the gut of the mice notably favored bacteria connected to obesity and diabetes. This was due to the fact that the mice ate almost continuously as a result of not having a normal biological eating and sleeping clock.

Another aspect of the study exposed the mice to varying light-dark schedules and random high-fat diets. This simulated the feelings of being jet lagged. In addition, two humans that flew from the United States to Israel were studied. These results showed that the makeup of normal flora in the gut had been significantly affected. The bacteria identified in the human subjects had been previously linked to the onset of diabetes and metabolism issues. Interestingly, it was also found that the mice had begun to gain weight and problems associated with diabetes emerged.

Now that these results have been reported, scientists can proceed with researching possible therapies or probiotics that can greatly reduce a person’s chance of developing these diseases later in life.

It is no surprise that lack of sleep is bad for a person’s health. But the tiredness and toll on mental health barely scratches the surface on damage that can be caused when your biological clock is thrown out of whack. The microbes in your body have a major impact not just on your basic digestive health, but also long-term health. While making healthy lifestyle choices can sometimes be difficult, especially for college students or holiday travelers, attempting to get those extra hours of sleep can make a student’s semester or a family’s vacation a much better experience. It could even save their lives.

Image: DeviantArt by bloodyrose65. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

This entry is part of the MICR 354 (Scientific Writing) student-blog series.