Understanding how stressors affect our gut microbes could lead to better performance—by the military and you
Professor Kenneth Wright finds sleep—and the lack of it—fascinating.
Wright and his students have studied how lost sleep leads to weight gain and diabetes, and how the internal circadian clock is affected by caffeine. He’s also found, while camping in the Colorado mountains, that natural light exposure syncs our internal clock to sunrise and sunset, probably much like our ancestors living thousands of years ago.
Now his research team has a $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to study how stressors like sleep deprivation and interruptions to our natural rhythms affect our gut microbes.
While sleep problems are common in deployed U.S. military forces, the new study also could help civilian shift workers and others who may be sleep deprived.
Previous studies have shown how the trillions of microbes that inhabit each of us influence various aspects of our health. Scientists now have evidence that gut microbes may affect not only obesity, but anxiety, depression, autism, autoimmune diseases and cancer. The study of the microbiome is one of the fastest growing areas of biomedical research.
For this DoD grant, Wright’s main focus will be finding countermeasures that can decrease stress during U.S. Navy operations. Wright, a professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology, is working with two other CU Boulder professors, Monika Fleshner and Christopher Lowry, as well as colleagues from Northwestern University and the University of California San Diego. Wright also likes to involve students of all levels in his research; thus far 44 undergraduates and six graduates and postdoctoral researchers have worked on this particular project.
The team is studying mice, rats and humans simultaneously, says Wright, who also directs CU Boulder’s Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory. For part of the human study, 50 adults will each spend five consecutive days on two occasions in Wright’s sleep lab during a 39-day study period. Wright and his colleagues will be looking to link changes in the microbiota to physiological, cognitive and emotional responses.
One effect of sleep deprivation can be gastrointestinal stress, says Wright. “If you are feeling sick you are certainly not going to perform at your best. If we can protect against that, for example, we might be able to make military personnel more operationally capable.”
While sleep problems are common in deployed U.S. military forces, the new study also could help civilian shift workers and others who may be sleep deprived or have disrupted circadian clocks due to circumstances like jet lag, he says.
“We are increasingly recognizing that the microbiome is important for human health and well-being,” explains Wright. “If we can find ways to protect healthy gut microbiota, we may be able to improve the health and performance of people going about their daily lives.”