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Exploring the effect of sleep loss on health

Due to yesterday's Nobel win, my colleagues and I woke up, and began working, at 3 AM - and I was reminded of how difficult it is to function after getting such a small amount (four hours, in this case) of sleep. My sleep deprivation, thankfully, was a temporary thing – but chronic sleep loss is something that millions of Americans deal with on a regular basis. And, as Stephanie Lee highlights in a recent San Francisco Chronicle story, its effect on health is something that researchers are busy studying:

Over the past five or so years, scientists have begun to make inroads into understanding the way poor or little sleep wreaks havoc on the immune system.

"We're at the beginning stage," said Clete Kushida, medical director of Stanford University's Sleep Disorders Clinic. "There are a number of studies that indicate that sleep can affect immune functions in terms of the amount of sleep, as well as the degree of sleep deprivation."

Their research shines a light on an exhausting and common lifestyle. Nearly one-third of U.S. workers - 41 million people - get less sleep than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this spring.

The health consequences can be significant. Sleeping fewer than six hours a night can weaken the effectiveness of vaccinations, an August study found, while other studies have shown that sleep loss changes the body's bacteria-fighting mechanisms, sometimes in ways that can actually do harm. These discoveries are opening up avenues of study that scientists hope will lead them to someday understand the precise ways sleep loss causes sickness.

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