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Sleep and Your Immune System

Does sleep really have an impact on your health? (image via flickr)

Just because something is an old wives’ tale, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  There is no better example of this than the idea that not getting enough sleep will make you sick.  Research has confirmed that there is a link between lack of sleep and an increased susceptibility to illness; lack of sleep won’t make you sick but it can make it more likely that you get sick.  As we approach the start of cold and flu season, understanding this link may be the key to helping you keep your family healthy.

In fact, studies have shown that not only does sleep deprivation impair your immune system, making it easier for you to get sick.  It also impacts your ability to recover which may mean you are sick for much long than someone with the same virus who was getting the sleep they need prior to getting sick.


The Sleep – Immune System Connection

When you sleep, your immune system is hard at work.  One of the things it is doing is releasing cytokines, proteins that perform various functions throughout the body.  Some of these cytokines respond to infection, inflammation, and stress, increasing in number in order to combat these conditions.  When you don’t get enough sleep, your body doesn’t produce enough of these cytokines, leaving your immune system ill-equipped to fight any bacteria or virus that invades.   Sleep deprivation also seems to impact the number of antibodies and cells designed to fight infection and illness that are available.  Simply not getting enough sleep can make it more likely that you will get sick and degrade your body’s ability to fight back, extending and even exacerbating the illness.


 The Underlying Cause

Although more research needs to be conducted in order to have a conclusive cause, one study that was published in the journal Sleep found that sleep deprivation mirrored the effects of excessive stress on the immune system.   The team looked at how varying sleep conditions and durations impacted the participant’s immune systems.  For the first week of the study, participants were put on a very regimented sleep schedule designed to eliminate any existing sleep deprivation before the end of the week.  Once the week was complete, the immune systems, specifically the white blood cells, were studied to create a baseline of how the immune system of each participant functioned with optimal sleep.  Then the participants were deprived of sleep, going as much as 29 hours without sleep.  Again, the white blood cells of the participants were studied.

The research team found that sleep deprivation caused a significant increase in white blood cell count, mimicking the fight-or-flight stress response.  They found that when participants were deprived of sleep, they experienced a similar cellular response to someone under extreme stress.   Additionally, researchers on this effort and on other studies found that the effects of sleep deprivation on the immune system lasts long after the person returns to a normal sleep pattern.

As cold and flu season approaches and you take precautions like increasing your Vitamin C intake or getting a flu shot, make sure you also put getting a good night sleep every night at the top of the list.  It may be the most important thing you do this year to safeguard your health.


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Tempe, AZ