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‘Sleep should play a greater role in lifestyle research’

Sleep disorders have a significant influence on our physical and emotional health. Sleep should therefore receive more attention within lifestyle medicine, says Professor Gert Jan Lammers. He will give his inaugural lecture on Friday 20 May entitled: ‘Getting to sleep’.

Lammers works at the Neurology Department at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and in 2020 was appointed Professor by Special Appointment of Sleep Disorders, in particular Narcolepsy and Related Vigilance Disturbances. The chair was established by SEIN, the expertise centre for epilepsy and sleep medicine (in Dutch). Lammers is co-founder and medical head of the SEIN sleep centres.

Research into narcolepsy

In recent years Lammers has conducted research into the cause of narcolepsy. People with this condition often have difficulty staying awake in the daytime and sleeping through the night. They often suffer from sudden muscle weakness triggered by strong emotions. The disrupted sleep and sleep regulation make them more likely to be overweight and suffer from anxiety and mood disorders. Together with researchers from Stanford University, Lammers has discovered that narcolepsy is caused by a deficiency in a substance known as hypocretin.

This is the first time that a cause of a sleep-related disorder has been discovered. However, says Lammers, only part of the code has been cracked. ‘A lot more follow-up research is needed in the next few years,’ he explains. Sleep medicine is a relatively young field of research. We still don’t know why many sleep-related conditions exist. Lammers wants to use what we do know about narcolepsy as a model to discover the causes and effects of other sleep-related disorders.

Living with narcolepsy

According to Lammers, much still needs to be done for narcolepsy patients. He is currently participating in a study in which the researchers are looking at MRI scans to see which brain regions are activated in narcolepsy. He is also involved in international research into drugs that could take on the characteristics of hypocretin.

In the coming years Lammers– together with patients – wants to look more carefully at living with narcolepsy and how to achieve the best possible quality of life. Diagnosing narcolepsy is a complicated process that can take years, he says. ‘It’s important that this is made easier and that we help patients with related symptoms sooner and where possible offer preventive care,’ he adds. To make this process easier, a study is underway into the use of a breath test during diagnosis.

Including sleep in lifestyle medicine

In his inaugural lecture Lammers will emphasise that it is high time to stop seeing sleep as separate from other basic functions such as metabolism, temperature regulation and emotional regulation, anxiety and stress. ‘These functions are integrated to such an extent that you can’t influence one without influencing the other. Lifestyle interventions must be geared more towards this,’ he explains.  Lammers is working on a study into the influence of sleep on metabolism. ‘We hope to establish clearer links between sleep disorders and overweight and which systems are involved. I hope we can use this knowledge to develop interventions that will really make a difference for patients with sleep-related disorders.’

Watch the livestream of Gert Jan Lammers’ inaugural lecture on Friday 20 May from 16.00.

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