Shift in Sleep Patterns May Warn You About Diseases

Changes in sleep patterns can indicate chronic conditions like diabetes and even infectious illnesses such as COVID-19, a new study finds.

A study published in the npj Digital Medicine examined data from 33,000 people for 5 million nights of sleep. The data was collected from Oura Ring, a smart ring that tracks sleep, heart rate, activity, and other health information.

Based on the analysis, the researchers identified five main sleep phenotypes, which can be further divided into 13 subtypes.


They found that people would often shift from one sleep phenotype to another, reflecting a change in an individual's chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and sleep apnea, or illnesses such as COVID-19 and the flu.

Researchers say the pattern and frequency of switching between sleep phenotypes could provide two to ten times more information relevant to detecting health conditions compared to a person's average sleep phenotype alone.

"We found that little changes in sleep quality helped us identify health risks. Those little changes wouldn't show up on an average night, or on a questionnaire, so it really shows how wearables help us detect risks that would otherwise be missed," said Benjamin Smarr, one of the study's senior authors and a faculty member in the Jacobs School of Engineering and Halicioglu Data Science Institute at the University of California San Diego.

What are the five sleep phenotypes?

The five sleep phenotypes identified in the study are the following:

  • Phenotype 1 involves getting about eight hours of uninterrupted sleep for at least six days in a row. Recommended by the National Institutes of Health, it is the most common type in the study.
  • Phenotype 2 is characterized by sleeping continuously about half the nights, but only sleeping for short periods of time in bouts of less than three hours the other half.
  • Phenotype 3 entails sleeping mostly continuously but experiencing interrupted sleep around one night each week. The interrupted night is characterized by one period of relatively long sleep of about five hours and one period of short sleep of less than three hours.
  • In Phenotype 4, people sleep mostly continuously but experience rare nights in which long bouts of sleep are separated by a mid-sleep waking.
  • Phenotype 5 is the rarest and represents extremely disrupted sleep, as it involves sleeping for very short periods of time every night.

Even if someone's sleep phenotype changes only rarely, the switch could still provide useful information about an individual's health, the researchers say. For example, it could serve as an early warning for chronic illness or vulnerability to infection.

"We found that the little differences in how sleep disruptions occur can tell us a lot. Even if these instances are rare, their frequency is also telling. So it's not just whether you sleep well or not – it's the patterns of sleep over time where the key info hides," said Edward Wang, a professor in the UC San Diego Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.


Sleep and overall health

While changes in sleep patterns may indicate health problems, getting inadequate sleep can contribute to their development.

People who experience sleep deficiency are at a higher risk for heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression.

Moreover, sleep deficiency is linked to a higher likelihood of injury. For instance, sleepiness behind the wheel, which is not related to alcohol, is responsible for serious car crash injuries and death.

Adequate sleep also helps to maintain mental health. For example, people with insomnia are 10 and 17 times more likely than those with a good night's sleep to develop depression and anxiety, respectively.

The new study indicates that information provided by sleep trackers can warn about chronic and acute conditions. However, when it comes to sleep quality, the way you feel rather than what devices say may have a greater impact on your well-being.


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