The temporal organization of the release of the counterregulatory hormones growth hormone (GH) and cortisol as well as the release of hormones that play a major role in appetite regulation, such as leptin and ghrelin, is partly dependent on sleep timing, duration and quality. Glucose tolerance and insulin secretion are also markedly modulated by the sleep-wake cycle [1
]. Sleep propensity and sleep architecture are in turn controlled by the interaction of two time-keeping mechanisms in the central nervous system, circadian rhythmicity (i.e. intrinsic effects of biological time, irrespective of the sleep or wake state) and sleep-wake homeostasis (i.e. a measure of the duration of prior wakefulness, irrespective of time of day).
Circadian rhythmicity is an endogenous oscillation with a near 24-hour period generated in the suprachiasmatic nuclei of the hypothalamus. The ability of the SCN nuclei to generate a circadian signal is not dependent on cell-to-cell interaction and synchronization. Instead, single SCN cells in culture can generate circadian neural signals [2
]. The generation and maintenance of circadian oscillations in SCN neurons involve a series of clock genes (including at least per1, per 2, per3, cry1, cry2, tim, clock, B-mal1, CKIε/δ), often referred to as ‘canonical’, which interact in a complex feedback loop of transcription/translation [3
]. Circadian timing is transmitted to other areas of the brain and to the periphery via direct neuronal connections with other parts of the hypothalamus, via the control of sympathetic nervous activity and via hormonal signals, including melatonin. The molecular and neuronal mechanisms that measure the duration of prior wakefulness and are thus responsible for the homeo-static control of sleep have not been fully elucidated. Human sleep is comprised of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Deep non-REM sleep is characterized by ‘slow waves’ in the electroencephalogram (EEG), which reflect a mode of synchronous firing of thalamo-cortical neurons. The intensity of non-REM sleep may be quantified by slow wave activity (SWA; EEG spectral power in the 0.5–4 Hz frequency range). Slow waves of larger amplitude and greater regularity are reflected in higher SWA and in deeper sleep. Because SWA decreases in the course of the sleep period, is higher after sleep deprivation (i.e. extended wakefulness) and lower when the waking period has been interrupted by a long nap (i.e. shorter wakefulness), SWA is considered as the major marker of homeostatic sleep pressure. Converging evidence implicates adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, in sleep homeostasis in mammals [5
]. Prolonged wakefulness results in increased levels of extracellular adenosine, which partly derive from ATP degradation, and adenosine levels decrease during sleep [6
]. The adenosine receptor antagonist, caffeine, inhibits SWA [7
]. It has been proposed that the restoration of brain energy during SWS involves the replenishment of glycogen stores [8
]. The results of experiments testing this hypothesis have been mixed. A recent and well-supported hypothesis regarding sleep homeostasis is that the level of SWA in early sleep is a function of the strength of cortical synapses developed during wakefulness and that the decline in SWA across the sleep period reflects the downscaling of these synapses [9
The major mechanisms by which the modulatory effects of circadian rhythmicity and sleep-wake homeostasis are exerted on peripheral physiological systems include the modulation of hypothalamic activating and inhibiting factors controlling the release of pituitary hormones and the modulation of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous activity.
The relative contributions of the circadian signal versus homeostatic sleep pressure vary from endocrine axis to endocrine axis. It has been well-documented that GH is a hormone essentially controlled by sleep-wake homeostasis. Indeed, in men, the most reproducible pulse of GH occurs shortly after sleep onset, during slow wave sleep (SWS, stages 3 and 4) when SWA is high. In both young and older men, there is a ‘dose-response’ relationship between SWS and nocturnal GH release. When the sleep period is displaced, the major GH pulse is also shifted and nocturnal GH release during sleep deprivation is minimal or frankly absent. This impact of sleep pressure on GH is particularly clear in men but can also be detected in women.
The 24-hour profile of cortisol is characterized by an early morning maximum, declining levels throughout the daytime, a period of minimal levels in the evening and first part of the night, also called the quiescent period, and an abrupt circadian rise during the later part of the night. Manipulations of the sleep-wake cycle only minimally affect the wave shape of the cortisol profile. Sleep onset is associated with a short-term inhibition of cortisol secretion that may not be detectable when sleep is initiated in the morning, i.e. at the peak of corticotropic activity. Awakenings (final as well as during the sleep period) consistently induce a pulse in cortisol secretion. The cortisol rhythm is therefore primarily controlled by circadian rhythmicity. Modest effects of sleep deprivation are clearly present as will be shown below.
The 24-hour profiles of two hormones that play a major role in appetite regulation, leptin, a satiety hormone secreted by the adipocytes, and ghrelin, a hunger hormone released primarily from stomach cells, are also influenced by sleep. The human leptin profile is mainly dependent on meal intake and therefore shows a morning minimum and increasing levels throughout the daytime culminating in a nocturnal maximum. Under continuous enteral nutrition, a condition of constant caloric intake, a sleep-related elevation of leptin is observed, irrespective of the timing of sleep. Ghrelin levels decrease rapidly after meal ingestion and then increase in anticipation of the following meal. Both leptin and ghrelin concentrations are higher during nocturnal sleep than during wakefulness. Despite the absence of food intake, ghrelin levels decrease during the second part of the night suggesting an inhibitory effect of sleep per se. At the same time, leptin is elevated, maybe to inhibit hunger during the overnight fast.
The brain is almost entirely dependent on glucose for energy and is the major site of glucose disposal. Thus, it is not surprising that major changes in brain activity, such as those associated with sleep-wake and wake-sleep transitions, impact glucose tolerance. Cerebral glucose utilization represents 50% of total body glucose disposal during fasting conditions and 20–30% postprandially. During sleep, despite prolonged fasting, glucose levels remain stable or fall only minimally, contrasting with a clear decrease during fasting in the waking state. Thus, mechanisms operative during sleep must intervene to prevent glucose levels from falling during the overnight fast. Experimental protocols involving intravenous glucose infusion at a constant rate or continuous enteral nutrition during sleep have shown that glucose tolerance deteriorates as the evening progresses, reaches a minimum around mid sleep and then improves to return to morning levels [10
]. During the first part of the night, decreased glucose tolerance is due to decreased glucose utilization both by peripheral tissues (resulting from muscle relaxation and rapid hyperglycemic effects of sleep-onset GH secretion) and by the brain, as demonstrated by PET imaging studies that showed a 30–40% reduction in glucose uptake during SWS relative to waking or REM sleep. During the second part of the night, these effects subside as light non-REM sleep and REM sleep are dominant, awakenings are more likely to occur, GH is no longer secreted and insulin sensitivity increases, a delayed effect of low cortisol levels during the evening and early part of the night.
These important modulatory effects of sleep on hormonal levels and glucose regulation suggest that sleep loss may have adverse effects on endocrine function and metabolism. It is only during the past decade that a substantial body of evidence has emerged to support this hypothesis. Indeed, earlier work had only involved conditions of total sleep deprivation which are necessarily short term and therefore of dubious long-term clinical implication. The more recent focus on the highly prevalent condition of chronic partial sleep deprivation resulted in a major re-evaluation of the importance of sleep for health, and particularly for the risks of obesity and diabetes. In the two sections below, we first summarize the evidence from epidemiologic studies and then the evidence from laboratory studies.