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Better sleep for better health

We could all use more sleep—but not just for beauty purposes. Sleep is restorative, and consistently sleeping less than seven hours a night increases your risk of health problems like Type 2 diabetes.

Christopher Depner

Researchers from the College of Health are investigating interventions to help people get more sleep. Chris Depner, PhD, assistant professor in the College of Health’s Department of Health & Kinesiology, has received a $3.8 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health for “Biomarkers of Habitual Short Sleep and Related Cardiometabolic Risk.”

He’ll use these funds over the next five years to conduct a randomized trial in people who sleep less than the recommended seven hours a night and are overweight or obese.

“We’re trying to figure out what mechanisms are driving poor health outcomes of short sleep and how we can mitigate the risk in people who get less sleep,” he said. “Basically, we want to study people who don’t sleep enough and help shift their circadian clock so they can sleep more.”

Previous studies have tied habitual short sleep duration to impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. Depner’s own pilot research with young, healthy adults has shown that restricting their sleep increases their level of ceramides, a toxic fat that can cause multiple health conditions including Type 2 diabetes.

“That population is at relatively low risk for chronic disease,” he said. “Expanding our research for individuals who are up to 45 years old and have higher risk of health conditions should give us room to see more improvement.”

Depner and his team plan to set up an eight-week intervention that will focus on sleep, but also incorporate aspects of nutrition and exercise. Before they enroll participants, they meet with individuals to determine that they have enough free time to spend more time in bed.

Once enrolled, participants wear a smart watch to track their sleep, receive weekly email updates on their sleep quality, and receive personalized counseling from a sleep coach. Overnight assessments will take place in the sleep labs at the new HPER East Research Center.

“Our goal is to get everyone up to eight hours in bed and work with them to get a schedule that works for them personally,” he said. “Our previous work has found that when participants follow our recommendations, it really does help increase their sleep duration.”

To better understand how to improve sleep, Depner is collaborating with faculty in the College of Health to study other contributing health indicators, like exercise and nutrition.

“We know all of these factors interact with each other,” he said. “In the big picture, we’re trying to understand how they all fit together to reduce your risk of disease overall.”

Depner collaborated with Scott Summers, PhD and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology, on his pilot study involving sleep restriction and ceramides. He has another R01 proposal up for review that works with Tanya Halliday, PhD, to study the impact of exercise on sleep and circadian physiology.

He’s also working with Summers and Micah Drummond, PhD in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training, to determine if interventions to reduce ceramides can be targeted on a molecular level.

“Over the next 10 years, we’d love to figure out the optimal interventions for different populations,” he said. “It’s great to have such a wide range of people here who are happy to collaborate.”

Depner joined the College of Health in 2020 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in sleep and circadian physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. This is his first R01, rewarding his drive to improve well-being through a better night of sleep.

“I’m super excited to receive this award,” he said. “It will be a challenge for us to work with this new population and increase their sleep duration enough to meaningfully change their health outcomes. That’s our big focus over the next five years.”

Sleep isn’t a one size fits all activity, but Depner has pointers that can make it easier to pass out once you hit the pillow:

  • Dim household lights three hours before goal bedtime, which helps you feel sleepier naturally and shifts your circadian clock
  • Get sunlight or bright light exposure first thing in the morning
  • Don’t exercise or snack right before your goal bedtime