Sleep and the Immune System: How Lack of Sleep can Make You Sick
Sleep is important. Your immune system is important. Sleep and the functioning of your immune system are deeply connected. Sleep (or lack thereof) has many impacts to your physical, mental and emotional well being. There is strong evidence that looks at the impacts of sleep on the immune system. Let's dive in an understand WHY sleep is so important to your wellness!
“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.”
WHAT HAPPENS DURING SLEEP?
Adequate sleep is essential for the body’s immune system to function at its best. During sleep, oxygen levels in the blood drop, allowing the cells of the immune system to circulate freely through the entire body and detect any foreign substances that need to be eliminated. During this time, breathing and muscle activity slow down, allowing energy for the immune system to fight infection. Simultaneously, melatonin increases during this time – it’s a powerful antioxidant that helps reduce inflammation and protect against various diseases by inhibiting oxidative stress in cells.
THE SLEEP & INFLAMMATION CONNECTION
Additionally, deep sleep helps our bodies to regulate inflammation. There's a sort of "reset" that happens when we sleep. Melatonin helps to reduce inflammation and the body goes through a process of autophagy, where the body "cleans out" waste, chemical buildup and excess lipids and plaques.
Sleep allows our bodies to focus on healing and recovery without disrupting performance when we’re awake. By replenishing our energy stores with quality restorative sleep every day, our bodies can maintain a strong immune response against infections or other illnesses throughout the day while continuing to perform physical tasks with improved capacity.
"When I was in college, I noticed that I would always get sick when I would come home after finals week."
Stress negatively impacts sleep. During stressful times (like finals week at college), sleep is often NOT prioritized. Many people experience illness after intense periods of time with lots of stress and little sleep. The body simply can't keep up with the regular "maintenance" that occurs with a solid sleep schedule.
LACK OF SLEEP CAN MAKE YOU SICK
Sleep helps regulate hormones in the body that play an important role in maintaining optimal immunological functioning. These hormones include cortisol and cytokines which help control inflammation associated with illnesses such as asthma and allergies. Cortisol levels increase when people are stressed or deprived of sleep, leading to increased inflammation in the body which can have negative impacts on the functioning of the immune system over time.
A study from Northwestern Medicine found that after four days of just five hours of sleep per night, white blood cell production was significantly reduced compared to those who got seven hours per night— suggesting a link between inadequate sleep and diminished immune function.
BETTER SLEEP = BETTER IMMUNE RESPONSE?
Finally, research suggests that good quality sleep can boost your body's ability to make antibodies which help ward off infections by attacking viruses and bacteria before they can cause harm or sickness. Additionally, good quality restful sleep increases your ability to make cytokines which help fight infection as well as disease-causing pathogens in general. It appears that deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep serves as an important factor in boosting overall immunity levels within our bodies as well as helping us recover from illness faster if we do become sick due to exposure from viruses or bacteria.
HOW CAN I SLEEP BETTER?
We know that sleep is important for the body to function at its best. But sleep can be hard. Is it difficult for you to fall asleep? Are you dealing with nighttime wakeups? Are you waking up too early and not getting enough hours of shut-eye? Sleep issues can be stressful. Many can be remedied by a good sleep routine. Avoid excess screen time before bed. Dim the lights in your house about an hour before you want to sleep. Using a sleep supporting aid can be helpful, but always chat with your doctor to see if there are any lifestyle or medication alterations that need to happen first.