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Study links lack of sleep to genes affecting obesity

Poor sleep seems to spur a ‘permissive environment’ for expression of proteins that influence sensations of hunger and satiety.

Obesity is a major cause of sleep apnea. And now, it appears, the reverse is true: Not getting the sleep you need increases the genetic risk of being obese.

So suggests research led by Dr. Nate Watson, a specialist at the UW Medicine Sleep Center at Harborview Medical Center.

Dr. Nate Watson, UW associate professor of neurology, co-directs the UW Medicine Sleep Center.Watson and colleagues’ study of 1,811 twin pairs is not the first to link obesity with short sleep but it reveals sleep’s influence at the genetic level.

“When the twins slept greater than nine hours a night, only about 30 percent of their body weight was due to genetic factors,” he said. “Conversely, when the twins slept less than seven hours a night, 70 percent of their body weight was due to genetic factors.” This suggests that short sleep creates a permissive environment for the expression of obesity-related genes.”
Dr. Nate Watson narrates a slideshow about his team’s sleep-obesity research findings.

Sleep does not change a person's DNA, per se, but short sleep may influence factors that control gene expression and result in metabolic and hormonal changes that cause weight gain, Watson explained. The journal SLEEP accepted the study for publication this year.

Future investigation along these lines could aim to identify the precise nature of these epigenetic changes to reveal specific genes associated with this phenomenon.

Sleep program is 1 of 6 U.S. designees

Such research helped persuade the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to identify UW Medicine’s program as distinct in “clinical service, educational mission and research accomplishments.” Only six such sleep programs nationwide earned the designation this past fall.
UW Medicine’s program and five others nationwide were cited as distinct in “clinical service, educational mission and research accomplishments.”
Dr. Vishesh Kapur, associate professor of medicine, co-directs the UW Medicine Sleep Center.“This identifies us as one of the premiere sleep programs in the country,” said Dr. Vishesh Kapur, associate professor of medicine. “If you're a patient, you know that regardless of how complicated or routine your sleep problem is, you have access to the best care available.”

Sleeplessness haunts at least 40 million Americans, estimates the National Sleep Foundation, so a sleepy patient likely won’t stand out to a primary care provider. Watson said it’s worthwhile to simply ask, “How’s your sleep?”

“You have an opportunity to improve many aspects of life by addressing it. If someone admits to nodding off at a red light or being jarred awake by the rumble strips on the freeway, those are signs of a major problem,” he said.

The majority of cases referred into UW Medicine’s center involve obstructive apnea, usually first pointed out by a sleep partner. Other cases involve insomnia, circadian rhythm disorders, restless leg syndrome and narcolepsy. Self-deprivation, though, is the usual culprit. An easy first step is to try to get patients to reprioritize sleep, though this can be challenging, Watson acknowledged.

From every side of the pillow
UW Medicine and the University of Washington cultivate sleep on several fronts:
  • Dr. Ed Weaver, associate professor of otolaryngology, performs surgeries for obstructive apnea and is nationally recognized for researching surgery’s role in treating that condition.
  • Dr. Earl Sommers, clinical associate professor in the School of Dentistry, provides expertise in the use of oral appliances to treat apnea.
  • Dr. Sina Gharib, assistant professor of medicine, is a computational biologist studying how apnea changes gene function.
  • Drs. Maida Chen and Yemi Kifle are UW faculty and co-directors of Seattle Children’s sleep center, the only such service in the region specifically for babies, children and teens.
  • Michael Vitiello, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, is recognized globally for his study of age-related disturbances in sleep, circadian rhythms and cognitive function.
  • Mark Opp, professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine, studies sleep’s influence on recovery from infection and on immune function.
  • The Center for Research on Management of Sleep Disturbances in the School of Nursing probes insomnia and other causes of sleep interruption on populations with traumatic brain injury, osteoarthritis, chronic illness and other conditions.
To refer a patient or learn more, contact the UW Medicine Sleep Center at 206.744.4999.

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