As we move through cold and flu season, the key to staying healthy might just be getting a good night’s sleep. Research has shown that there is a direct link between sleep and the immune system. One of the consequences of sleep deprivation is a weakening of this system which leaves us less protected when the next bug comes along. Make sure sleep is at the top of the list of things to do to stay healthy this fall.
Studies on the relationship between sleep and our immune systems have been going on for several years. Although researchers have much more to learn, they have come to some definitive conclusions thus far. They know that there is a complex relationship between our sleep-wake cycles and our immune systems. Parts of our immune system help to control our sleep and the sleep we get directly impacts how well our immune system functions.
Research into the effects of sleep deprivation on the immune system done at the University of Pennsylvania found that even short-term loss of sleep has a significant impact on how the immune system functions. The team uncovered some surprising results as not all of these impacts are bad. These findings have opened the door for future research into the interaction between how much our sleep contributes to our health.
The UCLA Cousins Center Research team found that even a small amount of sleep loss can trigger an immune system response in the body that increases inflammation that can cause tissue damage. These findings help us to further understand the link between sleep problems and increased risks for diseases like diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, obesity and specific cancers.
One reason our immune system function is so closely tied to our sleep is that certain disease-fighting substances are released or created while we sleep. Our bodies need these hormones, proteins, and chemicals in order to fight off disease and infection. Sleep deprivation, therefore, decreases the availability of these substances leaving us more susceptible to each new virus and bacteria we encounter. This can also cause us to being sick for a longer period of time as our bodies lack the resources to properly fight whatever it is that is making us sick.
The different phases of sleep are responsible for different functions within our bodies. The first and second phases involve settling in, resulting in rhythmic breathing and a lowered body temperature. The third and fourth stages are when our bodies are working to restore themselves. During this time our muscles relax and the blood supply going to them increases. Our bodies use this time to repair tissue damage and grow new tissue. Important hormones are released and our energy is renewed. These stages appear to be a critical factor in maintaining a healthy immune system and any sleep disturbance that impacts them impacts our health.
Bolstering the immune system doesn’t require us to dedicate additional time to sleep. But we do need to ensure we are getting the sleep we need. Adults generally need 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night and children and teens need more ranging from 9 to 11 hours. Consistency is the key to good sleep hygiene and bolstering our immune systems. Be careful not to overdo it either as too much sleep is not good for us either. Adults who routinely sleep more than 10 hours a night may be at a higher risk for some diseases and medical conditions.
The bottom line is that sleep is one of the three things our body needs to remain healthy. Along with healthy eating habits and regular exercise, getting a good night’s sleep keeps us alert, active, and in good health during cold and flu season and all year long.
- What is Lack of Sleep Costing the American Economy (Valley Sleep Center)
- What Happens When You Sleep (National Sleep Foundation)
- Lack of Sleep (Mayo Clinic)