What is the relationship between sleep and telomere lengths? Shorter telomeres are associated with cell aging, so this is definitely an important topic to discuss.
For this section, 10 different scientific studies that link telomere lengths to sleep have been examined. Some of them assess sleep durations and telomere lengths while others compare sleep quality and some compare sleep apnea and insomnia symptoms. All these articles show that there are several different perspectives at play.
But first, what are telomeres? In simple terms, telomeres are associated with cell aging. They are essentially sticks at the end of chromosomes that act as marks for how many times cells are able to divide. Once the telomere is used up, that’s it. No more cell divisions.
The study “Sleep Duration and Telomere Length in Children” showed that children who sleep less have shorter telomeres, which is a bad sign. Telomere length alterations are usually monitored in adults only, because the effects are going to be more visible by that time. So the fact that changes are already visible in children is a bad sign. However, there was only a difference of less than a percent of the whole telomere length, so the results are not awful.
The next paper examined is “Telomere Length is Associated with Sleep Duration But Not Sleep Quality in Adults with Human Immunodeficiency Virus”. Here, the subjects were of different ages, but all of them suffered from HIV. People who slept less than 7 hours a night had 9% shorter telomeres than people who slept at least 7 hours a day. Though its uncertain if the effects were mostly visible in older adults or in young adults.
Regardless, this next study, “Shorter Leukocyte Telomere Length in Midlife Women with Poor Sleep Quality” actually showed a different perspective. In this study, the telomere lengths of women were compared to their sleep quality. What’s interesting is that the sleep duration didn’t affect the telomere lengths significantly, but the sleep quality did. According to this study, if your sleep quality is bad, your telomeres will be affected. Otherwise, shorter sleep durations are not affected.
Moreover, there is also this study, “Cellular Aging and Restorative Processes: Subjective Sleep Quality and Duration Moderate the Association between Age and Telomere Length in a Sample of Middle-Aged and Older Adults”. This study poses even more interesting results. In this paper, both middle-aged and older adults’ sleeping patterns were evaluated, and the results were that middle-aged people didn’t have any significantly shorter telomeres regardless of their sleep durations, but the older adults did.
Speaking of aging, this paper “Insomnia and Telomere Length in Older Adults” found that people who suffered from insomnia also had shorter telomeres than people who didn’t, but only when they were older than 70.
In addition, this paper “Long Sleep Duration, Insomnia, and Insomnia With Short Objective Sleep Duration Are Independently Associated With Short Telomere Length” also found that insomnia was associated with shorter telomeres. But this paper also concluded that people who slept for long durations had significantly shorter telomeres!
Next, a few studies on how sleep apnea is related to telomere lengths. Sleep apnea is caused by an obstruction in the throat that causes people to have issues breathing while sleeping, and as a result of that they will subconsciously wake up very frequently, but their sleep quality is absolutely out of whack because of it. The results of these papers should therefore be able to be compared to how sleep quality fares with telomere lengths. This paper, “The history of sleep apnea is associated with shorter leukocyte telomere length: the Helsinki Birth” found a correlation between sleep apnea and shorter telomere lengths.
But this paper, “Moderate-to-severe obstructive sleep apnea is associated with telomere lengthening” found no correlation between sleep apnea and telomere lengths.
The following study; “Tired telomeres: Poor global sleep quality, perceived stress, and telomere length in immune cell subsets in obese men and women” found a correlation between decreased sleep quality and shorter telomeres, but that didn’t find any correlations between sleep durations and telomere lengths.
Finally, this article “Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Shorter Telomere Length in Healthy Men: Findings from the Whitehall II Cohort Study”, found a relation between shorter sleep durations and shorter telomeres, but what’s interesting is how much shorter they were. The study group consisted of only older people, and those who slept 5 hours a night only had 6% shorter telomeres than those who slept 7 hours a night.
What does this all suggest? Basically, sleep seems to be related to telomere lengths. Several studies linked shorter sleep durations to shorter telomeres, but several didn’t. By this point in time, it’s uncertain if this reduction in telomere lengths is caused by a decrease of a certain sleep stage, like we could see with the glymphatic system and SWS, or if it’s the sleep duration as a whole. Anyway, what does this mean for polyphasic sleepers? The data needs to be evaluated objectively and the conclusion is that the safest possible option is to not reduce your total sleep time with polyphasic sleep. However, a polyphasic sleeper will have a much better sleep quality than monophasic sleepers, so regarding the studies that found a link between sleep quality and telomere lengths, polyphasic sleep would be safer than monophasic sleep.
An alternative hypothesis is that the main factor affecting people is stress. For example, this paper called “Zen meditation, Length of Telomeres, and the Role of Experiential Avoidance and Compassion” found that people who meditate had longer telomeres than people who didn’t, and meditation is a known way to decrease people’s stress levels. This fits the data, since people who sleep for shorter durations may do it because they are under a lot of stress. If this is the case, polyphasic sleep would certainly be a benefit. Additionally, many people who sleep polyphasically use the gained time to take care of oneself. On the same topic, the relationship between stress and telomere lengths has been directly investigated, like in a paper called “Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress”, which showed that the more stressed out you are, the shorter your telomere lengths become.
Regardless, scientists are working hard to find a way to actually increase telomere lengths, and this might not be an issue for anyone regardless of their habits in a few decades. For now, the safest option if you sleep polyphasically is to allocate a few hours for self-care each day, and possibly also supplement this time by meditating frequently.
In order to find evidence that polyphasic sleeping is detrimental, you should show:
- That telomeres shorten a significant amount by reducing light sleep.