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Sleep – a state that renders animals stationary and less responsive to stimuli – is crucial for survival. Some evidence suggests that sleep is important because it protects the body against harmful oxidative stress. A 2020 study in flies and mice showed that reactive oxygen species, which drive oxidative stress, accumulate in the gut during sleep deprivation, leading to death.

Researchers deprived flies and mice of sleep for various durations, occasionally allowing them to sleep. Then, they measured reactive oxygen species in the animals' tissues, including the heart, brain, muscles, and gut. They repeated the experiment but gave the animals antioxidant compounds during the sleep deprivation period.

They found that animals that experienced extended sleep deprivation died, but allowing them to sleep periodically prevented death, albeit with slightly shorter lifespans. Sleep deprivation markedly increased reactive oxygen species in the animals' guts. After ending the sleep deprivation, the reactive oxygen species levels slowly decreased, nearly returning to their baseline levels. Providing the animals with dietary antioxidant compounds reduced the harmful effects of reactive oxygen species, and the animals lived normal lifespans despite sleep deprivation.

These findings suggest that sleep deprivation shortens lifespan and causes death due to the accumulation of reactive species in the guts of flies and mice. However, dietary antioxidant compounds reduce reactive oxygen species in the gut and moderate the harmful effects of sleep deprivation. Learn how sleep deprivation affects the brain in this short video featuring Dr. Rhonda Patrick.

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