Sleep Deprivation Leads to Decreased Immunity

Subjective complaints of illness creep up after a prolonged period of sleep loss, and new research points to an explanation of why.

Researchers for this study analyzed blood samples of 11 pairs of identical twins.  The different sleep patterns were measured and reviewed, noting that the twin who had more sleep deprivation also had a weaker immune system than his or her sibling.  Findings were published in January’s issue of the journal, SLEEP.

Dr. Nathaniel Watson, co-director at Harborview Medical Center’s UW Medicine Sleep Center notes that this research shows that the immune system is stronger when the individual gets plenty of quality sleep.  He reminds readers that current data shows seven to eight hours to be recommended for optimal health.

The unique attribute of this research was the employment of identical twins, rather than fraternal twins or individual adults, so scientists could control for the genetic disposition in the sleep duration of humans.  Scientists note that genetics is responsible for about 31% to 55% of sleep behavior and duration, while environment and setting account for the rest.

Senior author of the research and director of Computations Medicine Core at the Center for Lung Biology at UW Medicine, Dr. Sina Gharib, explains that current published research shows us that sleep deprivation, even when done for a short time in a laboratory setting, activates immune cells and increases the presence of inflammatory markers around the body.  It is notable, however, that scientists do not completely understand the true effects of sleep deprivation in natural conditions in the long term.  While the study used real world conditions and simulations, Dr. Gharib notes that this research shows us, for the first time, that chronic sleep deprivation negatively affects the immune response seen in white blood cells.

Dr. Watson notes that these findings correlate with the current published studies, which show that sleep deprived individuals who are exposed to rhinovirus are more likely to be sick from the virus than those who get enough sleep.  Furthermore, these findings show that those with sleep deprivation who are given a vaccination have a lower antibody response in the body.  This research adds data to these findings with evidence that sleep affects overall health and well-being, especially with regard to immunity.

Scientists cited data found at the Centers for Disease Control, which stated that people in the U.S. have been getting about 1.5 to 2 hours less than the recommended amount of sleep over the last century.  The CDC reports that about 1/3 of workers in the country sleep fewer than six hours every night.

What is the cause? Researchers believe that modern society’s control over technology, light, and countless competitors for your time are what to blame for sleep loss and decreasing health.  This, coupled with the trending belief that sleep is not an important factor in our health, has led to a widespread practice of de-prioritizing sleep.


Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include reading, traveling, and cooking.



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