We’re taking a closer look at the relationship between our immune systems and our sleep habits
There is no doubt about the importance of sleep for our overall wellbeing. Whether it’s physical or mental health, a consistent sleep pattern is a vital component in staying well.
And like sleep, our immune system is also critical to our overall health. When our immune systems are working as they should be, they are fundamental in healing wounds, warding off infections and protecting against potentially life-threatening illnesses.
We’ve all become much more aware of the importance of immunity in recent months, and research continues to display the bidirectional relationship between sleep and our immune systems. Just as immune response can affect sleep, so too can consistent sleep strengthen our immune system.
Let’s delve deeper into the all-important connection between our sleep health and our immunity.
Understanding the immune system
Your immune system’s defences generally fall into one of two categories: innate immunity and adaptive immunity. Innate immunity is the broad type of protection with several layers of defence, while adaptive immunity includes defences that you develop over time, and those designed to deal with specific threats.
Our immune systems rely on white blood cells, or leukocytes. When a white blood cell detects a foreign pathogen, it releases cytokines to tell other white blood cells to attack. These cytokines are proteins that act as messengers for the immune system.
The science of sleep and your immune function
Research has shown a clear connection between sleep and our immune response. Getting sufficient hours of high-quality sleep every night supports a well-balanced immune defence and fewer allergic reactions, while sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnoea can interfere with the functioning of the immune system.
During sleep, certain components of the immune system become more active, including the production of cytokines associated with inflammation. When we’re ill or injured, the inflammatory response may help with recovery, but sometimes inflammation occurs even when we aren’t actively hurt or sick. The cytokines involved in this night-time immune activity therefore work to strengthen our adaptive immunity and help guide our bodies to respond in the way we need to do for our wellness.
What’s more, just as sleep helps to support learning and memory, it can also strength our immune memory. The interaction of immunity components during sleep helps to reinforce our immune system’s ability to remember how to recognise and deal with dangerous antigens. The reason for this has yet to be confirmed, though researchers suggest the fact that our breathing and muscle activity slow during sleep frees up energy for the immune system to use.
Can sleep deprivation cause sickness?
High quality sleep can support our immune system, but a lack of sleep can do the opposite. Sleep deprivation can disrupt the immune system and increase the likelihood of a wide range of serious health concerns, including diabetes and heart problems. One study from the National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information found that, even in the short term, the risk of infection is higher in those suffering from a lack of sleep. In addition, people in intensive care units with acute recovery needs may have their recovery hampered by a lack of sleep.
By prioritising good sleep every night, you’re effectively putting your health and wellbeing first. This gives your body the best fighting chance of remaining healthy and avoiding illness.