By Lisa Rapaport
Children who suffer adverse experiences like abuse and neglect may be more likely to have sleep problems in adulthood, a U.S. study suggests.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can include witnessing parents fight or go through a divorce, having a parent with a mental illness or substance abuse problem, or suffering from sexual, physical or emotional abuse.
For the current study, published May 21 in the journal Sleep, researchers surveyed 22,403 adults who were 47 years old on average about any adversity they experienced during childhood. Overall, 42% of the participants didn't report any ACEs, while another 23% experienced one type of ACE and the rest were exposed to at least two ACEs.
About 61% of the adults got an optimal amount of sleep - 7 to 9 hours a night - and roughly one-third of them got too little sleep - less than 6 hours nightly.
Each ACE people experienced was associated with 22% higher odds of getting too little sleep. People with three ACEs were more than twice as likely to get too little sleep, and the risk was more than tripled for adults with five or more ACEs.
"Previous studies have shown that adults who experienced adverse childhood experiences have an increased likelihood of sleep disturbance, and poor sleep quality," said lead study author Kelly Sullivan of Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.
What makes the current study unique is that it shows the that adverse childhood experiences can also impact sleep duration, Sullivan said by email. This is likely due to the lasting effects of toxic stress.
"Excessive or prolonged stress has been shown to biologically alter the brain and affect health, learning and behavior," Sullivan said. "These effects can last throughout the lifespan."
People in the study were typically overweight, which can impact the risk of sleep problems. Almost half of them were former smokers, and about 21% were current smokers, which can also negatively impact sleep quality and quantity.
Only 10% of the adults reported experiencing frequent mental distress.
Mental health challenges or poor physical health didn't appear to influence the association between ACEs and insufficient sleep in adulthood, however.
Out of all the different types of ACEs, domestic abuse, child abuse and rape had the biggest impact on sleep duration in adulthood.
When people did experience ACEs, they most often reported emotional abuse, living with an alcoholic, or parental divorce.
The study wasn't a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how ACEs might directly cause sleep deficiencies.
One limitation of the study is that researchers lacked data on the duration of the ACE or age at exposure, which could impact how these exposures contribute to sleep issues down the line.
Even so, the results offer fresh evidence of the long-term impact of childhood exposure to toxic stress, said Dr. Nicole Racine of the University of Calgary and Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute in Canada, who wasn't involved in the study.
Children who are exposed to abuse and adversity experience heightened levels of toxic stress, Racine said by email. She added, "Toxic stress has a wear and tear on the body and also impacts a child's developing brain, including areas of the brain that regulate sleep."
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