Did you know that sleep and the immune system go hand-in-hand?
Sleep plays a critical role in your health. Lack of quality, functional sleep can directly affect your immune system. Medical research has proven a link between lack of sleep, or poor quality sleep, and the tendency to become unwell after exposure to viruses. It also directly impacts the amount of time it takes for you to recover.
Poor sleep also increases your sensitivity to pain, can result in headaches on waking, and a chronic lack of sleep can even reduce your body’s ability to properly respond to vaccines, including the flu vaccine.
The Immune System
The immune system is a complex network of proteins and cells which defend the body against inflammation and infection. It incorporates:
- The spleen
- The thymus gland
- The lymphatic system
- The tonsils and adenoids
- Bone marrow
- White blood cells
- The complement system (proteins)
Other defences in the body include the skin, lungs, and digestive tract.
The immune system records and remembers every “foreign” microbe it has ever defended against in B- and T-lymphocytes (B-cells and T-cells). These cells enable the body to quickly recognise and destroy microbes if they ever re-enter the body.
It is this immune response that makes you feel sick – which is why you can be infectious before having symptoms. Much of the time, the symptoms of an illness are actually due to your immune system working properly to do its job. For example, a fever is an immune response whereby the temperature of your body rises to kill microbes and trigger repair processes. The runny nose and cough you get with a cold are your body’s way of expelling the virus or bacteria.
Immunisation copies the body’s natural immune response by using a vaccine, which is a tiny, specifically treated dose of the virus, toxin, or bacterium, which triggers the immune system to create antibodies for it.
A poorly functioning immune system may become either underactive (this may be due to lack of sleep, be inherited, arise from chemotherapy or steroid use, or be caused by a disease like cancer or HIV), or it may become overactive (as in autoimmune diseases or allergies).
Sleep and the Immune System – How Does Sleep Affect Immunity?
We all require deep, functional sleep to fight infections and other diseases. Long term, lack of sleep increases your risk of developing an array of chronic and potentially serious health issues including cancer, diabetes, obesity, sleep apnoea, and cardiovascular disease.
During sleep, the immune system produces and releases cytokines. These are protective proteins and part of the complement system which promote sleep and target inflammation and infections. An increased volume of cytokines in the body is required when you are:
- Under stress
- Have an infection
- Have inflammation
Sleep deprivation limits cytokine production, as well as the production of the antibodies required to fight infection and other issues which the body needs to “clean up”, including random cancer cells (we all have these, and the optimally-functioning immune system will clear these before they can take hold, create a tumour, and become potentially invasive cancer).
Additionally, a study published in 2019 in the Journal of Experimental Medicine found that a good night’s sleep can boost the effectiveness of T-cells. These are specialized immune cells which recognize pathogens and elicit the immune response.
Your immune system works constantly to keep you well, healthy, and alive.
Tips for a Healthier Immune System
- Most healthy adults require seven to eight hours of good quality sleep each night to bolster the immune system; too much as a general rule is almost as bad as not enough. See our sleep science page for recommendations on how much sleep you should be get based on your age.
- Take a nap if your sleep is disrupted – but limit naps to no more than thirty minutes in the afternoon. This can help minimize stress and boost your immune system, while not impinging on your nighttime ability to sleep.
- Maintain general health practices – wash hands regularly, drink plenty of water, eat a healthy, modest diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables and whole foods, limit saturated fat. See some more sleep health suggestions here.
- Set aside time to “worry” if you need to before bedtime. Make plans, consider solutions, and leave them behind until tomorrow.
- Avoid close contact with others if you are feeling unwell.
- If you are unwell, make time for extra rest.
- Ensure you are fully vaccinated and maintain your annual flu vaccine.
- Snoring interrupts functional sleep, so you must find the right snoring solution that works for you. SnoreMD may be the solution you seek!
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