Can Sleep Strengthen Your Immune System?
Researchers have found that getting an adequate amount of sleep can help T cells in the body fight against infection. This basically translates to mean that getting sufficient sleep helps your immune system.
While several studies in the past have reported the wide variety of benefits associated with a good night’s sleep, researchers from Germany(1) have now discovered that a good night’s sleep can also improve your immune system by boosting the immune cells known as T cells.
T cells are a type of immune cell that is responsible for fighting against any kind of intracellular pathogens, including virus-infected cells such as herpes, HIV, the common flu, and even cancer cells.
The study was published recently in February 2019, and it was carried out by a researching team at the University of Tubingen in Germany.
The authors of the study discovered a new mechanism through which sleep helps boost the immune system.
According to one of the researchers, Dr. Stoyan Dimitrov, the study showed that the stress hormones in our body, adrenaline, and noradrenaline (also referred to as epinephrine and norepinephrine), along with pro-inflammatory chemicals are known as prostaglandins, disrupt the stickiness of a particular class of adhesion molecules known as integrins. Because the levels of prostaglandins, noradrenaline, and adrenaline are low when we sleep, the stickiness of integrins is stronger during this time. This stickiness factor is essential because of the fact that in order for T cells in the immune system to kill virus-infected cells or even cancer cells, they have to come into direct contact with them. It is the integrin stickiness that promotes this contact.
Understanding the Importance of T Cells
T cells have a very important role to play in our immune system. When these T cells recognize a potentially virus-infected cell, they immediately activate integrins, which is a sticky protein that allows the T cells to attach to the infected cells and then proceed to kill them.
The researchers of this study have compared T cells taken from healthy volunteers who either stayed awake all night or slept all night. The study found that in the participants who slept all night, the T cells displayed a higher level of integrin activation, as compared to the T cells of the participants who remained awake the entire night.
The findings from this study thus indicate that sleep has a great potential to improve the overall functioning of T cells in the body. Furthermore, for people who do not get a good quality of sleep, stress hormones in the body can inhibit the ability of these T cells to function effectively and produce a high level of integrin activation.
So it can be determined that sleep deprivation suppresses the functioning of our immune system. So basically, the more all-nighters you pull or, the more you cut down on your sleeping hours, the more likely it is that you are decreasing your body’s ability to fight off infection, including even the common cold.
Importance of Sleep
It is never a good idea to underestimate the need for sleep in our lives. Adults need a bare minimum of at least seven hours of sleep each night to function correctly and have improved well-being and health. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2016 alone, there were more than one-third of Americans who were not getting adequate sleep. (2)
According to Kimberley Hardin, the director of the sleep medicine fellowship program at the University of California Davis, the fault lies in the fact that most people take a good night’s sleep for granted. (3) People often underestimate the importance of sleep and frequently cut back on their sleep hours, having less than seven hours of sleep per night on a regular basis. Not only do fewer hours of sleep have a negative impact on your overall health, but it also gives rise to a fight or flight state in the body, which increases the level of stress hormones and also causes the body to release adrenaline.
Less than five hours of sleep each night that too, on a regular basis is known to be linked with a higher mortality rate. Surprisingly, sleeping for less than seven hours for even three nights in a row is also known to have the same impact on your body as missing an entire night of sleep can have.
Poor sleep is going to have both short term and long term consequences for your health.
According to research from the University of Kansas Health System (4), poor sleep can lead to long-term health problems with memory, blood sugar, and mood, amongst many other issues. On the other hand, short-term consequences of sleep deprivation may include poor judgment, increased car accidents, sleepiness, moodiness, workplace mistakes, memory problems, and many more. Chronic sleep deprivation can not only affect your ability to function properly the next day but over a period of time, this sleep deficit that builds up is also not good. Chronic inadequate sleep is going to cause many problems inside your body.
Poor sleep is also known to increase inflammation inside the body, elevate blood pressure, give rise to insulin resistance, cortisol, weight gain, and even cardiovascular disease. At the same time, poor sleep can reduce blood sugar regulation in the body.
A study in 2019 (5) done on mice found that there is a link between the brain, bone marrow, and the blood vessels that protect against atherosclerosis, a condition characterized by the hardening of the arteries. The study found that a good night’s sleep can protect against heart disease and that this mechanism only happened in mice who were getting good quality sleep.
Researchers are hopeful that a deeper understanding of this link between cardiovascular health and sleep will lead to newer and better treatment options in the future.
Why Are People Not Getting Adequate Sleep?
There have been numerous studies that have clearly shown that adverse health effects of poor sleep. However, regardless of knowing the harmful effects of sleep deprivation, many people still do not prioritize getting sufficient sleep.
According to medical experts from all over the world, people need to reflect on the amount of sleep they are getting because there are many health problems that are stemming from this.
Having a comfortable, cool, and dark bedroom and by getting rid of distractions from the bedroom, such as electronic devices, or pets is essential to ensuring a good night’s sleep. Getting regular exercise is also necessary for promoting good quality sleep. Also, watch the amount of caffeinated beverages and alcohol you consume towards the evening.
It is necessary to make good sleep a priority because unless you consciously decide to make time for sleep, it is going to have a direct impact on your health.
With research firmly confirming that a good night’s sleep can also strengthen your immune system, this should serve as a stronger motivation for people to get sufficient sleep. As per the study discussed here, scientists have shown that a night of good quality sleep can activate the T cells present in your body to fight against infection.
Good sleep enhances the ability of T cells in the immune system to stick to and destroy foreign cells infected by viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens. The research study further confirmed that there are many short-term and long-term health problems that are associated with sleep deprivation. We should all aim to get at least eight solid hours of good quality sleep. Modify your sleeping environment and change your working schedule to make time for sleep.
- Dimitrov, S., Lange, T., Gouttefangeas, C., Jensen, A.T., Szczepanski, M., Lehnnolz, J., Soekadar, S., Rammensee, H.G., Born, J. and Besedovsky, L., 2019. Gαs-coupled receptor signaling and sleep regulate integrin activation of human antigen-specific T cells. Journal of Experimental Medicine, 216(3), pp.517-526.
- CDC. (2019). CDC Press Releases. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html [Accessed 31 Oct. 2019].
- UC Davis Health, D. (2019). UC Davis Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Sleep Medicine Fellowship. [online] Health.ucdavis.edu. Available at: https://health.ucdavis.edu/internalmedicine/pulmonary/sleep_fellowship/index.html [Accessed 31 Oct. 2019].
- Kansashealthsystem.com. (2019). Sleep Disorders Center At The University of Kansas Health System. [online] Available at: https://www.kansashealthsystem.com/care/centers/sleep-disorders-center [Accessed 31 Oct. 2019].
- McAlpine, C.S., Kiss, M.G., Rattik, S., He, S., Vassalli, A., Valet, C., Anzai, A., Chan, C.T., Mindur, J.E., Kahles, F. and Poller, W.C., 2019. Sleep modulates haematopoiesis and protects against atherosclerosis. Nature, 566(7744), p.383.
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