How Sleep (or the Lack Thereof) Impacts Your Immune System

How Sleep (or the Lack Thereof) Impacts Your Immune System

“Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” We think about this quote from 16th century dramatist Thomas Dekker rather often—especially right now, when it feels like not getting sick is top priority.

Nowadays, sleep seems somewhat of a superfluity to many of us. Modern life has us spinning all these different plates, all the time—trying to “have it all.” The more interviews and articles we read about successful and hardworking people, the more we see them claiming that they function just fine on four to six hours of sleep. What? How?!

As a company dedicated to sleep, claims like this are hard for us to believe, what with the immense and ever-growing data that proves the exact opposite. Seven to eight hours of sleep is, always has been, and always will be necessary for optimal human function! Sleep is akin to drinking water, eating well, getting sunlight, and moving your body. We need these things to function and to live our happiest and healthiest lives.

Not only does not getting enough shuteye negatively affect our focus, temperament, and productivity (yikes!); it impacts our immune systems, too. Yes, not getting enough sleep will make you sick. Yes, being physically ill is a symptom of exhaustion. And no, there aren’t any workarounds—people need to sleep.

Who’s at risk of sleep deprivation?

Unfortunately, those who are most susceptible to sleep deprivation are those who can’t fully do anything about it. Shift workers, military personnel, new parents, and caregivers are among those most vulnerable to sleep deprivation. It’s not just people themselves who lose out on a lack of sleep, it’s the companies they work for. According to an article published by Nature Reviews Immunology, “with ever-increasing pressures to work longer hours, sleep loss and sleep disruption have become occupational hazards.” Not an out-of-left-field fact if you ask us, but it doesn’t stop us from putting sleep on the back burner.

Beyond specified jobs, though, we are all at risk of sleep deprivation. Post-industrial societies are very go, go, go. Having it all doesn’t come without sacrifice, and, you guessed it, we tend to sacrifice sleep. Why sleep eight hours when you can sleep six and have a full two extra hours to be productive, right?

Wrong! This thinking has us taking huge gambles with our health; gambles that catch up to us both immediately and in the long term.

Short-term effects of sleep deprivation: sick and tired

We all have sleepless nights… they just happen from time to time. Regardless of what’s kept you up, we all know the symptoms off just one night of lousy shut eye: inability to focus, forgetfulness, weakness, tiredness (obviously), change in appetite, bad moods, and, for many, headaches, stomach issues, and a general feeling of what we like to call “blegh.”

Sleep deprivation doesn’t stop at a simple feeling. “There is significant interaction between sleep and the immune system, and adequate ‘restorative’ sleep is needed to maintain good immunity,” write Laila AlDabal and Ahmed S BaHammam in an article for the Open Respiratory Medicine Journal. In fact, several studies have shown that even short-term sleep deprivation results in changing levels of cytokine, which stimulate the immune system to fight foreign pathogens and tumors.

Essentially, our immune systems can’t build up their forces to fend off invaders without sleep. “People who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as a common cold virus,” says the Mayo Clinic. “Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.” Sleep is associated with a brain protein called AcPb, which, studies show, speeds up recovery from viruses like the flu.

Next time you feel that cold coming on, don’t Leslie Knope it and work through the symptoms—rest, rest, rest, and sleep!

Long-term effects of sleep deprivation: chronic illness

Losing a night or two of sleep won’t cause any long-term harm, but making it a habit just might. “Long-term consequences of sleep disruption in otherwise healthy individuals include hypertension, dyslipidemia, CVD, weight-related issues, metabolic syndrome, and T2DM,” write AlDabal and BaHammam. “Evidence suggests that sleep disruption may increase the risk of certain cancers and death. Sleep disruption may also worsen the symptoms of some gastrointestinal disorders.” Sheesh.

The weakening of our immune system is just one piece of the puzzle. Sleep deprivation also affects our insulin levels, blood pressure, weight, and long-term memory. With so many defenses down, a common cold can feel like the plague, and we’re at a much higher risk for chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

So what’s the remedy?

“The most basic form of sleep deprivation treatment is getting an adequate amount of sleep,” says Healthline. “Typically 7 to 9 hours each night.” If you’re saying “duh,” we’re with you. The research just goes to show that there’s no magical fix.

So what can you do to get more sleep? Develop a healthy sleep schedule and stick to it. Try not to nap. Do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day (including weekends!). Limit caffeine intake to mornings and early afternoons. Don’t look at your phone at least a half hour before bed. With healthy habits comes more energy, allowing us to become more productive during our waking hours.

We also encourage doing a self-study to find what we call your “high productivity window.” This differs from person to person, but once you know it, you can work to build your days around that window the best you can. Is your window from 7-1? Schedule meetings in the afternoons and try to get the bulk of your work done in the mornings. Wake up at 6:30, work out first thing, drink your coffee, and hunker down by 8:30. Your high productivity window can also inform your bedtime. If you’re waking up at 6 in the morning, your time to hit the hay is 10 p.m. Some people are ultra-productive at night, and can therefore go to bed at 3 a.m. and wake up at 11 a.m. It’s all about finding what works for you.

Quality of sleep matters

One last thing you can do to ensure you get a restful eight hours of sleep is to make your sleeping area a haven. Do your best not to use your bed as a workspace, limit cell phone use, and remove any harsh lighting from your space.

Make your bed as comfy and cozy as possible. Soft fabrics, lightweight comforters, and a great pillow all will help your body relax and drift off into dreamland. In terms of pillows, try either our Original or Eden Pillow—the Original provides medium-firm support that’s great for side and back sleepers, while the Eden is ultra-luxurious and soft, with a material perfect for hot sleepers. Both pillows are adjustable, so you can ensure proper spinal alignment while you sleep.

By understanding our bodies, we can work toward a regular sleep schedule that both benefits our health and allows us to make the most of our time spent awake. Yeah, we can have it all. We just have to sleep first!

Products mentioned

Featured image: @brunette_of_vantes