Have you ever wondered why we tend to get sick when we are deprived of sleep? Or why we feel the overwhelming need for sleep when we do get sick? This is because sleep plays a critical role in the functioning of our immune system. Quality sleep leads to a healthy immune response!
Immune System & Sleep
Our immune system is a complex orchestration of hormones, proteins and chemicals that work in concert with our body’s immune cells to attack invading pathogens. Our internal biological clock, also known as our circadian rhythm, leads this orchestration. In addition to our immune system, the circadian rhythm also regulates various functions like metabolism and body temperature, as well as sleep. This internal clock operates best when we are consistent in our sleep/wake routine. Any disruptions to this routine, whether it be by limiting sleep time or sleeping too much, can negatively impact your rhythm.
When our normal sleep schedule is interrupted this often results in sleep deprivation. This creates disruption within all our bodily systems including the immune system. When we are deprived of sleep, there is a decrease in the availability of the hormones, proteins and chemicals that boost our immune response. This leaves us more vulnerable to each new bacteria and virus we encounter.
For example, proteins called cytokines alert our immune system to invading pathogens. This attracts antibodies such as leukocytes, also known as white blood cells, which then attack the invading pathogens. When we don’t have enough sleep, our bodies produce less of both cytokines and leukocytes, leaving us more exposed to potential illness.
It is natural to want to sleep when we get hurt or sick. Sleep helps us grow and heal.
Getting Enough Sleep
So, how much sleep do we need? Everyone’s needs are different. The best way to gauge whether you are getting enough sleep is by evaluating your energy levels throughout the day. If you feel tired, depend on caffeine, and/or fall asleep at inappropriate times, then you may want to have your sleep evaluated.
As a rule, our age determines the quantity of sleep that we need. Infants need 12 to 17 hours, children 9 to 11 hours, teens 8 to 10 hours, and adults 7 to 9 hours. Taking a 20-minute nap can be beneficial for some. However, if you find that you are awake for long periods during the night, it may be best to avoid naps and adjust your sleep schedule to consolidate your sleep into one period. For people who have insomnia, also called chronic circadian rhythm disruption, there are specialists who can treat these issues by using behavioral modification techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTi).
Sleep deprivation can be voluntary – for example, a teen who stays up late – or involuntary because of an undiagnosed sleep disorder. Focus first on what you can control by modifying your behaviors with good sleep hygiene. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule and a healthy sleep environment. Your bedroom should be cool, dark, quiet and clean. It is especially important to avoid distractions within the bedroom like blue-wave light emitting from televisions and cell phones.
Signs of a Sleep Disorder
Many of us struggle with daytime sleepiness, which is one of the most common symptoms of an underlying sleep disorder. The most common disorders include insomnia, restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea. Untreated, these disorders will deprive you of sleep, which can result in an impaired immune response.
Getting quality sleep is not always easy. For many of us, this requires evaluating our lifestyle choices, and making sure we exercise, eat healthy and get quality sleep. Maintaining a balance of these elements is the key to our overall wellness.
If you suspect that you or a loved one has a sleep disorder, it is most likely treatable and there are sleep specialists who can help. Your primary care provider can refer you to a specialist who can lead you to a path of better sleep.
Michael Stout, RPSGT, CCSH, is a lead sleep study tech at Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital.