There’s a lot of conversation going around now about how to avoid getting COVID-19, and I for one am super stoked that more people are learning how to properly wash their hands. Setting my germaphobe status aside, sleep is an often-overlooked way to boost the body’s immune system. Your immune system is made up of a complex network of organs, tissues, and cells that work in concert to fight off foreign substances to keep you healthy.
As a culture, Americans tend to value a busy lifestyle over a healthy sleep cycle. However biologically, our bodies are made for long periods of sleep. Humans are what biologists call monophasic sleepers, which means we should be dividing our day into two distinct periods: one of wakefulness and the other for sleep. For thousands of years our ancestors lived by the sun’s cycles, going to sleep while it’s dark outside and waking with the sunrise. The rise of the modern workday, along with the advent of electricity, changed human behavior and sleep cycles.
Research consistently shows that sleep plays a big role in how effective your immune system responds to foreign substances like the common cold or even more serious viruses like COIVD-19. While sleeping over the recommended eight hours won’t make you invincible to every virus out there, skimping on sleep will make you more susceptible and prolong the length of an illness. The obvious solution is to increase your immunity by prioritizing sleep. For many people, this is easier said than done. But we have some tips for you in case you need help.
During sleep, your body creates cytokines. Cytokines are a type of protein, or peptide, used by the body on a cellular level to fight off infection and inflammation. The body creates and releases cytokines during your sleep cycle. If you don’t sleep as much as you should, this process is shortened so you have less cytokines in your system to fight off infection. Studies have found that prolonged poor sleep hygiene can even impact how effective the flu vaccine can be.
Being at risk of sounding like an infomercial, I have to say, “But wait! There’s more!” A recent study from Germany found that sleep improves T cells. Dr. Stoyan Dimitrove from the University of Tubingen, and author of the study said, “T cells are a type of… immune cells that fight against intracellular pathogens, for example virus-infected cells such as flu, HIV, herpes, and cancer cells.” The study specifically pinpoints a new mechanism the body uses while sleeping to assist the immune system.
“We show that the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline (also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine) and pro-inflammatory molecules prostaglandins inhibit the stickiness of a class of adhesion molecules called integrins,” Dr. Dimitrov said. “Because the levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and prostaglandins are low during sleep time, the stickiness of the integrins is stronger. This stickiness is important because in order for T cells to kill virus-infected cells or cancer cells, they need to get in direct contact with them, and the integrin stickiness is known to promote this contact.”
The study’s findings concluded that sleep plays a vital part in improving T cell functionality. Conversely, stress hormones can inhibit the T cells ability to function effectively when we don’t have enough sleep. Dr. Kimberley Hardin, the director of sleep medicine at University of California Davis said, “People underestimate the importance of sleep, and less than seven hours per night on a regular basis has negative effects. It essentially creates a fight-or-flight state, with increased stress hormones and release of adrenaline.”
To stay in tip–top shape, get the recommended minimum of seven hours a night. This will allow your body to produce cytokines and T cells to refuel your immune system while also protecting you from a whole host of other health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. People who tend to get five hours or less per night on the regular have higher mortality rates. And even more surprising, getting less than seven hours of sleep for three nights in a row has the same effect on the body as pulling an all-nighter.
If you are in a sleep deficit, try scheduling a healthy napping schedule. Naps that are 10 to 20 minutes long have been found to be the most effective in helping cognitive ability, while also avoiding the feeling of grogginess some people can experience after a longer nap. Taking a nap, or two, each day has been shown to help fight against stress and increase the body’s immune system.
Making sleep a priority is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from health problems and increase the strength of your immune system. Dr. Eric Olson, a sleep medicine specialist and pulmonologist at the Mayo Clinic said, “People have to honestly reflect on the amount of sleep they’re getting because a lot of the problems are voluntarily induced, and they just need to decide to prioritize an adequate night’s sleep.” Numerous studies have been published proving the negative health impacts of poor sleep hygiene and how it diminishes your immune system’s response to foreign substances. Dr. Olson goes on to say, “Good sleep must be a priority because there’s so much going on in our worlds that unless you consciously decide you’re going to make enough time for sleep, it’s just not going to happen.”
Sleep holds the key to potentially enhancing your immune system. Prioritizing a healthy sleep cycle is especially relevant now due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the prevalence of conditions that seem to feed off poor sleep, such as depression, anxiety, and obesity. Sleep well, stay safe, and wash your hands.