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Why Your Immune System Needs You to Sleep

We’ve all experienced the detriments of a sleep deficit, from feelings of fatigue throughout the following day to difficulty with focus, retention, and recall. It can also make you pretty grouchy. However, you might wonder if a restless night can leave you with bigger problems.

Can a lack of sleep affect your immune response? Certainly, catching a cold can cause you to lose some sleep, but could it work the other way around, as well?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s gotten sick after several nights of burning the midnight oil that sleep has an impact on immune function, but what actually occurs when you don’t get as much REM sleep as you should? How does it affect your immune system?

Adaptive Immune Response

Whether you experience a few nights of insomnia or you’re dealing with chronic sleep apnea, a lack of sleep could interfere with your immune system’s natural ability to respond to invading antigens (foreign substances in the body, such as allergens, bacteria, viruses, and toxins).

When you get adequate rest each night, your body regulates the release of hormones that support an adaptive immune response needed to effectively mount a defense against antigens in the body.

Inflammatory Cytokines

Cytokines are proteins released by cells that may serve a variety of purposes in the body. Some promote inflammation, while others are anti-inflammatory, and studies show these substances are linked to the onset and duration of pain associated with inflammation.

When you’re suffering stress, inflammation, or infection, certain cytokines must increase to combat the issue, and a lack of sleep can affect your body’s ability to produce needed cytokines.

Whether you skip the caffeine, take a hot bath, upgrade your mattress, or reach for the melatonin at night, finding ways to enjoy a restful slumber can help to give you the immune boost needed to continue fighting not only infection but painful inflammation.

NK Cell Activity

Did you know your body has a type of cell called “natural killer,” or NK? It may sound scary, but this type of lymphocyte (i.e., white blood cell) has been found to play a role in killing tumor cells or cells infected with viruses when alerted by the presence of specific enzymes.

In other words, you definitely want these cells present and functioning as part of your body’s natural immune response. Unfortunately, studies have shown that lack of sleep can reduce the activity of NK cells, potentially increasing risks for the spread of viruses and cancer cells.

Risks with Long-Term Sleep Deficit

You can do a lot to promote a healthy immune system with proper diet, vitamins, and exercise, but sleep plays a critical role in your ability to fight infection and disease and maintain overall health.

When you aren’t getting enough rest in the long-term, you could suffer increased risks for conditions and diseases like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, not to mention compromised immunity that leads to more common issues like colds. 

If you’ve been missing out on sleep lately due to lifestyle choices or medical concerns, it may be time to make some changes, consult with a doctor, and find ways to improve your sleep so you can enjoy adequate rest and a healthy immune system.