It’s National Sleep Awareness Week. Are you getting enough sleep each night? If not, your health may be at risk. Keep reading to learn about the link between sleep and immune function, and how sleep deprivation can make you sick.
The sleep crisis in America
As our lives keep getting busier, a good night’s sleep can be hard to find. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than one-third of Americans weren’t getting the sleep they need.
National Sleep Awareness Week is a perfect time to assess your sleeping habits and the effect they may be having on your health. The optimal amount of sleep for most adults is seven to eight hours per night. Teenagers need nine to ten hours of sleep, and children may need ten hours or more.
With today’s hectic schedules and access to 24/7 technology, many don’t come close to these numbers. And it’s easy to fall behind on sleep—getting less than seven hours for three nights in a row has the same effect on the body as missing one full night of sleep.
Why does all this matter? Because decades of scientific research confirm the far-reaching importance of sleep for virtually every system of the body. The health consequences of sleep deprivation are very real.
Lack of ZZZZ’s zaps our energy & so much more
The negative impact of not getting enough sleep goes far beyond short-term consequences like drowsiness, memory problems, and our ability to function well the next day. A chronic lack of sleep can also cause long-term consequences such as:
- High blood pressure
- Weight gain
- Cardiovascular disease
Sleep and our immune system are also intricately connected. To better understand the relationship between sleep and immune function and why it’s so important, let’s take a closer look at the role our immune system plays in our overall health.
A critical defense system
From healing wounds and warding off infections to protecting us against life-threatening illnesses, the immune system is crucial to our overall health. This complex network throughout the body provides us with multiple lines of defense that are generally divided into two categories: innate immunity and adaptive immunity. Innate immunity is a broad type of protection with several layers of defense, while adaptive immunity includes defense to specific threats that are developed over time.
It all comes down to our leukocytes, also known as white blood cells. A white blood cell’s job is to identify, attack, and remove foreign pathogens from our bodies. When a white blood cell detects a foreign pathogen, it releases proteins called cytokines that tell other white blood cells to prepare to attack. As the immune system finds and attacks these potential threats, it also triggers responses that cause symptoms such as redness, swelling, fatigue, fever, or pain.
Sleep & immune function
Don’t sleep on your immunity. Actually, you DO want to sleep. Sleep and immune function are closely linked—and it goes both ways.
Sleep and the immune system have a two-directional relationship. An immune system response, such as one caused by a viral infection, can lead to fatigue and extra sleepiness. At the same time, getting the right amount of high-quality sleep on a regular basis strengthens the immune system, allowing for optimal immune function.
Lack of sleep has the opposite effect. Research has proven that sleep deprivation and efficient human immune function do not go hand-in-hand. Without enough high-quality sleep, you’re more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold or flu. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.
Building immunity as you sleep
During sleep, certain parts of our immune system rev up, including increased production of the cytokines we need to fight off infections. Studies show that this nighttime immune activity occurs even when we aren’t actively hurt or sick.
Researchers aren’t certain why this important process takes place during sleep, but there are several possible reasons:
- As we sleep, our breathing and muscle activity slows down, freeing up the energy our immune system needs to work.
- Because the increased production of cytokines could impact us physically or mentally when we’re awake, the body has evolved to complete these tasks as we sleep.
- Melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone that we produce at night, helps counteract any stress caused by this process.
When we don’t get enough sleep, the production of these protective cytokines and other infection-fighting antibodies is reduced, making us more vulnerable to illness.
The link between sleep deprivation and human immune function—or lack thereof—is clear. While some people can get through the day on limited sleep, it appears that our immune system simply cannot do the same.
Get a good night’s sleep
To strengthen your immune system and help it function properly, make it a priority to get the recommended amount of uninterrupted sleep each night. Creating a sleep schedule and having a sleeping environment that is dark, cool, and comfortable without distractions—especially phones, televisions, and other electronic devices—can make a big difference when your head hits the pillow.
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