Sleep and the Immune System
Table of Contents
If you want to improve your quality of sleep, you need to maintain a healthy immune system. In this article, we’ll look at how the immune system works, how it relates to sleep, and how you can improve your own immune system. While we’ll look at advice from medical experts, keep in mind that we at Sleepopolis are not healthcare professionals. As such, please do not take this information as medical advice.
How the Immune System Works
The immune system is an intricate network that provides multiple defensive components against illnesses. I spoke with Dr. Ceppie Merry of Healthy But Smart, who says that people often think of the immune system as a single entity, but that this is incorrect; it’s actually composed of a large number of cells with differing properties.
The immune system is incredibly complex, but two of the most important components are white blood cells and cytokines. White blood cells target, attack, and destroy foreign substances, such as bacteria and viruses. Once white blood cells spot a foreign substance, the immune system releases cytokines. Dr. Leann Poston of Invigor Medical said that the immune system uses cytokines to “increase blood flow and bring disease-fighting cells to an infection.” We’ll talk more about white blood cells and cytokines throughout this article.
A 2013 study in Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism suggests that the immune system is on high alert when sleep deprivation occurs. In other words, the body goes into defensive mode in response to reduced sleep. (1)
Low-grade chronic inflammation can also be caused by poor sleep. While the cytokines the immune system makes are often beneficial, unfortunately, when you don’t get enough sleep, your weakened immune system responds by releasing pro-inflammatory cytokines. (2) These can cause painful inflammation. (3) While a lack of sleep can harm the immune system, having plenty of quality sleep can improve it. (4) Dr. Jacqueline Darna, CEO & Medical Inventor of NoMo Wristbands, informed me that sleep helps strengthen the immune system by producing T cells, which help identify foreign bacteria, viruses, or other substances. In this way, the T cells alert the immune system if there is a substance that shouldn’t be there. In addition, Dr. Mindy Pelz, a nutrition and functional health expert, noted that “sleep triggers a cellular mechanism called autophagy.” When our cells are in autophagy, viruses cannot replicate.
To learn more about how sleep impacts the immune system, I talked with Dr. Nikola Djordjevic of HealthCareers.co, who informed me that sleep can stimulate the innate immune system as well as the adaptive immune system. With that in mind, he recommends sticking to a regular sleeping schedule and avoiding mobile phone and laptop usage before bedtime.
Dr. Saunders of The Sleep Fix explained to me the importance of having plenty of rest to support the immune system. She says that once the immune system is activated, it encourages your body to sleep so that it can recover. She recommends getting at least seven hours of sleep each night so that your body does not reduce the amount of white blood cells it makes, which can compromise the immune system.
One way to get restful sleep is by using a mattress that works right for you. When choosing the correct mattress, you’ll want to make sure your body has plenty of pressure relief. The best foam mattresses help alleviate any tension, promoting the deep, restorative sleep your immune system needs.
Types of Immunity
The National Center for Biotechnology Information cites research done by the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, explaining that the innate immune system is the initial way the body defends itself against incoming germs. (5) Dr. Merry says that the skin, mucous membranes in the nose and mouth, and some blood cells and proteins all make up the innate immune system. She also says that, unlike adaptive immunity, innate immunity does not target specific pathogens.
The National Cancer Institute notes that acquired (or adaptive) immunity is an immune system response to a foreign substance entering the body. (6) Dr. Merry says the adaptive immune system targets particular pathogens, though it may take time before the pathogens are eradicated.
The Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care research states that the adaptive immune system kicks in if the innate immune system fails to destroy any germs causing an infection. The research also notes adaptive immunity is the reason why your body “remembers” certain germs, which is why people only get some diseases once. Dr. Poston says that the adaptive immune system uses antibodies to identify infections so immune cells can target and destroy them.
The Importance of Your Immune System
To get a better idea of how valuable the immune system is, let’s briefly take a look at how important it is for defending your body against viruses and diseases. Specifically, we’ll examine the benefits of the immune system when fighting COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold.
Nurse Teri Dreher of NShore Patient Advocates says that during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important to keep a healthy immune system. She says: “There is no magic bullet for amping up your immune system. However, when you improve your overall health, your immune system benefits, too.” We’ll look into how you can strengthen your immune system later on.
Dr. Saunders pointed out that the immune system is incredibly important for defending against the flu and the common cold. She explained that the cytokines your immune system releases when faced with an infection are likely to make you want to rest. This is good news, since she says the best way to keep your immune system healthy is by getting at least seven hours of sleep each night.
Ways to Strengthen the Immune System
Beyond getting plenty of sleep, there is more you can do to maintain a healthy immune system. To learn how, I sought more advice from medical experts.
Exercise Every Week.
To strengthen your immune system, Nurse Dreher recommends exercising for a minimum of 2.5 hours a week. Dr. Saunders agrees, saying that physical activity encourages deeper sleep, thereby benefiting your immune system.
Eat the Right Foods.
A 2020 study in Frontiers in Public Health says diet and nutrition can positively impact the immune system by serving as a preventive measure. (7) Dr. Saunders recommends eating plenty of protein, vegetables, and fruits, while staying away from sugary snacks.
Dr. Darna gave me a list of essential minerals and vitamins that can help improve your immune system:
- Zinc: Lean meats, seafood, milk, whole grains, beans, nuts
- Vitamin C: Fruits like oranges, strawberries, cantaloupe, and tomatoes and vegetables like broccoli and kale
- Iron: Spinach, white beans, lentils, and tofu
- Vitamin E: Avocado, shrimp, nuts, and green leafy vegetables
- Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, carrots, red bell peppers, mangos, black-eyed peas, and spinach
- Vitamin B6: Tuna, salmon, and chickpeas
Manage Your Stress.
Alternative and Chinese medicine expert Tsao-Lin Moy says stress impacts your immune system by interfering with the duration and quality of your sleep. Since stress can cause a reduction in your immune system’s production of white blood cells, which defend against foreign pathogens, Nurse Dreher recommends trying to manage it.
Try Acupuncture and/or Aromatherapy.
One way to manage your stress, according to Dr. Irina Logman of the Advanced Holistic Center, is through acupuncture. This is because acupuncture releases natural opioids that help reduce stress. Dr. Logman notes that acupuncture also activates an immune response and promotes healing.
She also says that it “boosts the immune response when necessary and calms it down in cases of overactive responses.” Tsao-Lin Moy also says acupuncture can be useful in that it can activate self-healing mechanisms within the body.
Take Probiotic Supplements.
Lisa Richards, nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet, told me that probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, help protect the gut and the immune system. She says taking probiotics supplements can help give your immune system an added boost, especially if you’re sick.
Can lack of sleep cause a fever?
A lack of sleep will not cause a fever, which is a sign your body is fighting an infection. However, a lack of sleep may leave you more vulnerable to illnesses, as sleep deprivation can weaken your immune response.
Can lack of sleep make you nauseous?
It might not happen after one night of bad sleep, but nausea is a sign of sleep deprivation.
Can lack of sleep cause flu-like symptoms?
While a lack of sleep can lead to feelings of exhaustion or fatigue, it won’t give you flu-like symptoms unless you’re actually infected. However, sleep deprivation can weaken your immune response, which may leave you vulnerable to the flu, colds, and other illnesses.
Last Word From Sleepopolis
Now that you know the importance of a healthy immune system, we hope you’ll be able to use some of these tips to keep it strong, which will help you sleep better. Keep in mind that sleep, diet, exercise, and stress management are all key for maintaining your immune system. Again, we’re not medical experts, so be sure to talk with your doctor if you have medical concerns on this subject.
- Mullington, J et al. Sleep Loss and Inflammation. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Jan 18, 2013.
- Besedovsky, L et al. Sleep and immune function. Pflügers Archiv: European Journal of Physiology. Jan 2012.
- Zhang, J et al. Cytokines, Inflammation and Pain. International Anesthesiology Clinics. Nov 30, 2009.
- Besedovsky, L et al. The Sleep-Immune Crosstalk in Health and Disease. Physiological Reviews. Mar 27, 2019.
- “The innate and adaptive immune systems.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279396/
- “Acquired Immunity.” National Cancer Institute. www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/acquired-immunity
- Chaari, A et al. Importance of Dietary Changes During the Coronavirus Pandemic: How to Upgrade Your Immune Response. Frontiers in Public Health. Aug 27, 2020.