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The Impact of Sleep on the Immune System

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Though daytime drowsiness may be the main concern after a restless night, not getting enough shut-eye can also have a significant impact on your immune system. According to the CDC, more than a third of American adults fail to get enough sleep on a regular basis. This presents a widespread problem for public health. Let’s examine the relationship between sleep and immune health as well as ways to improve both.

The Connection Between Sleep and the Immune System

When it comes to sleep and the immune system, it’s a two-way street — immune system activity triggers sleep, and sleep bolsters the body’s natural defense system. Researchers continue to explore these bidirectional interactions, such as how the immune system influences sleep using cytokines, a type of signaling protein, and how sleep helps the body repair damage from harmful bacteria and viruses.

You’ve likely received the sage advice to get plenty of rest to prevent becoming sick. Conversely, whenever you had a bout of illness, someone may have recommended getting more sleep. But due to the stresses of school, work, relationships and other everyday commitments, many adults find themselves locked in a repeating cycle of restless nights, falling ill, more restless nights, becoming even more ill.

Further, poor immune health can complicate existing sleep disorders, which affect both adults and children. Considering that medical and psychological conditions can cause sleep disorders, it can be difficult for someone to untangle, which came first, the immune system deficiency or the sleep disorder.

How Sleep Deprivation Impacts Immune Health

It’s tempting to think the occasional all-nighter can’t hurt, but a growing body of evidence counters that idea. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states that even a modest amount of sleep loss can lead to the development of chronic disorders. One study indicated that restricting someone to four hours of sleep for a single night led to the following consequences.

  • Substantially reduced the function of natural killer cells (cells involved in killing tumors),
  • Increased the number of inflammatory cytokines
  • Decreased the number of antibodies generated in response to an influenza vaccination
  • Led to a higher infection risk when compared to participants who slept normal hours.

Another experiment looked at how our bodies resist the common cold. The final analysis determined that individuals who slept well during the two weeks prior to exposure to the rhinovirus had much less chance of developing a cold.

The long-term consequences of sleep deficiency are much more serious and can even be fatal. Sleep deprivation has been linked to insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic illness. There may also be mental health impacts beyond the typical grogginess, such as mild depression, anxiety or irritability.

How to Get Quality Sleep When Sick

Despite your best efforts, you may still catch a bug, especially during flu season. Having a stuffy nose, hoarse cough or chest congestion can keep you up long into the night. Immune health is also influenced by our circadian rhythms. Hormones involved in antibody production respond to these rhythms, and fewer hormones are sent out as the day goes on. This typically results in worse symptoms at night, which only adds to the problem of lying awake in bed.

If getting to sleep while sick is a struggle, consider trying the following:

  • Avoid any cough or nasal decongestant medicine that’s not intended for nighttime use.
  • Take a steamy shower before bed to help clear your sinuses.
  • Keep your head elevated with pillows without straining your neck.
  • Keep tissues or a glass of water nearby in case of a runny nose or dry throat.
  • Add a brief 20- or 30-minute nap to your daytime schedule if restful sleep is difficult.

If you haven’t gotten sick yet but are struggling with maintaining sleep quality, following the CDC guidelines for sleep hygiene may help.

When to See a Doctor

Though poor sleep has a negative impact on the immune system, that doesn’t mean that having a rough night will cause you to become seriously ill in the short-term. The body responds to the need for sleep by increasing the intensity of sleep, and if you set aside the proper time, recovery without further issues is probable.

Take note of changes in appetite, energy levels, mood and behavior. It may help to examine personal habits and consider whether certain lifestyle changes could improve sleep quality and immune health, such as sleeping in a quieter environment free of allergens.

If you’ve tried your best to manage both personal and sleep hygiene with limited success, then it’s a wise choice to consult a reputable sleep specialist. Trying to self-diagnosis may delay treatment for a sleep (or immune) disorder and bring further complications.

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2 comments on “The Impact of Sleep on the Immune System”

  1. Interesting that you would post an article on the harms of sleep deprivation. Every night I wake up at least once gasping for air because the replacement lid you sent me for my CPAP has popped open and subsequently shut down. It is usually impossible to go back to sleep after that. Last night it happened four times. I guess I'll try a big C-clamp to hold it closed since your service department had no suggestions.

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