The Importance of Sleep for Immune Support
A strong immune system relies on more than just a healthy diet and immune-boosting vitamins. The body also needs dedicated time to make the most of these nutrients through the restorative power of sleep.
Quality sleep is essential for optimizing our immune function and overall health. Unfortunately, many of us fail to get the sleep we really need. We may be able to trudge through the surface-level issues with poor sleep habits (like fatigue, irritability, and brain fog), but we can no longer overlook the bigger picture of poor sleep.
Chronic sleep deprivation is at the root of many health issues and has been linked to an increase in depression, acute and chronic illness, and poor immune function. Sleeping better is a simple first step to a stronger, more powerful immune system and a healthier future.
Why Do We Need Sleep?
Sleep is irreplaceable. Just like a car or computer needs rest to function well, the brain needs sleep to keep the body in tune. Sleep protects the brain, helping us learn, stay alert, and feel emotionally balanced. Sleep improves cognitive health and maintains our good memory.
While brain health is an incredibly important aspect of sleep, recent scientific research shows that sleep has powers beyond offering a simple rest and brain reset. Sleep is crucial for human health and has an important job in warding off minor illnesses and even fighting chronic disease.
Sleep and the Immune System
The immune system is a vast network of cells, chemicals, tissues, and organs that work in harmony to eliminate intruding pathogens and maintain balanced homeostasis. Like all other systems, the immune system relies on adequate nutrients and proper rest to stay strong and resilient. As it turns out, sleep is not only helpful to the immune system, but necessary.
While you sleep your body feels at rest, but it is full of activity. Sleep allows for some of the body’s most important healing processes to occur, much like a daily housekeeping routine. During sleep, tissues repair and rejuvenate, waste is removed, and hormones rebalance.
It is during sleep, too, that the immune system goes to work – either fighting potential threats or building up its resilience. Sleep deprivation, however, leaves our immune system weak and our body becomes vulnerable to attack.
These are the main reasons sleep is so helpful in keeping our immune system strong:
Sleep Creates Helpful Cytokines
During sleep, the body makes and releases special proteins called “cytokines.” Cytokines are a key feature of the immune response and the regulation of our sleep cycles. Depending on the body’s needs, these cytokines target areas of infection and inflammation and mount a proper immune response. Without enough sleep, however, the body is unable to make enough of these helpful cytokines to properly support the immune system and defend the body.
Sleep Improves Immune Memory
Immunological memory, or adaptive immunity, is how our body learns to defend against repeated invaders. When we receive a vaccine or fight a virus, the immune system learns how to target and eliminate these invaders with specific antibodies. It uses this experience to “remember” how to fight these pathogens in the future. Studies show that the immune system most actively creates these antibodies and immune memory during slow wave sleep, or restorative sleep.
This crucial restorative sleep tends to be reduced or impaired in those who suffer from interrupted or lack of sleep. A healthy sleep pattern can better encourage the body’s immune learning and memory.
Sleep Supports Healthy Hormone Balance
Hormones control many different aspects of our health, but they can also impact the strength of our immune system. A quality sleep routine is necessary for keeping these hormones in a healthy balance.
When out of balance, the common stress hormone cortisol is known to cause a range of health issues. When it comes to sleep and immunity, cortisol prevents restful, productive sleep and can sabotage immune health. Our cortisol levels are closely related to our circadian rhythm and are meant to rise throughout the day, then fall at nighttime to induce restful sleep. Excess stress or poor sleep can increase cortisol levels and lead to even worse sleep habits, less sleep time, interrupted sleep, or reduced slow wave/restorative sleep. This provides inadequate support for the immune system and continues this vicious cycle.
Sleep Better, Stay Well
Enhancing immune health is the key to a healthier future. The first step? Prioritizing better sleep! Aim for seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night to give your immune system the rest it needs to keep you strong.
- Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006. 3, Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders.
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- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “Overview of the Immune System.” 2013.
- James M. Krueger, PhD, et. al. “SLEEP AND CYTOKINES.” Sleep Med Clin. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2008 Dec 18.
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