Sleep Deprivation and Immunity: A good night’s rest can chase away viruses, colds

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

As health officials continue to try and better understand COVID-19 and its emerging variants, many Arizonans are left wondering how best to protect themselves.

In addition to washing your hands with hot water and soap, avoiding contact with those who are sick, and frequently disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, one of the best ways to protect against the COVID-19, the common cold and even the flu, is to boost your immune system. Because sleep is a natural immune booster, getting a good night’s rest is one of the easiest ways you can protect yourself.

“If you’re healthy, you’re more likely to fight off any type of virus or cold,” says Amerisleep Chief Operating Officer Joey Holt. “A strong immune system will reduce the severity of any illness and help you recover quickly. When it comes to your immune system, one of the most important things you can do to keep it functioning properly is to get a full seven to nine hours of sleep each night.”

In addition to a compromised immune system, sleeping less than the recommended seven to nine hours may result in a variety of health issues, including confusion, problems concentrating, distortion of memory, depression, or decreased mental capacity.

Physical problems may also occur such as diminished coordination, reduced muscle strength, endurance, increased wear and tear on the organs, heightened pain sensitivity, disruption of insulin production and sugar metabolism, and an increased risk of diabetes. The most threatening physical outcome is a weakened immune system, which decreases the body’s chance of being able to fight against any bacterial or viral infection.

“When everything is working correctly, and your body is in an overall healthy state, the immune system is more likely to ward off sickness,” says Amerisleep’s April Mayer. “But because the immune system connects to your central nervous system, changes elsewhere in the body, such as a lack of sleep or excessive stress, can impact immune function. Additionally, sleep affords the immune system the chance to recoup and reevaluate how best to attack invaders. Without enough sleep, it will have a difficult time developing antibodies and keeping up defenses.”

A good night’s sleep also improves the immune system’s response time. When we cycle through all four stages of sleep, stage one through REM, each stage performs specific functions that are important for proper health. One of those functions is the production of the protein cytokine which helps the immune system respond to harmful pathogens. Cytokines increase cell to cell communication, enabling the immune system to direct antibodies towards specific infections.

“If we don’t cycle through all four stages of sleep at least five times each night during seven to nine hours of sleep, we may produce less cytokine,” Holt says. “Without this vital protein, the immune system doesn’t have one of the vital ingredients it needs to fight off viruses.”

Sleep also increases T Cell production. T Cells, also known as white blood cells, also play a vital role in immune function. These cells help the immune system attack and destroy harmful cells. New research now shows that sleep can improve your T Cell’s ability to fight off invaders.

“Study participants who slept a full seven to eight hours had a greater T Cell activation, while those who lost two hours of sleep had a significant reduction in T Cell function,” Mayer says. “Sleep loss slowed down T Cell response time, making it possible for infections to get past defensive barriers.”

If you’re suffering from sleep deprivation or just aren’t getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night, Amerisleep recommends trying the following ideas to improve sleep including dimming the lights and avoiding electronic light (blue light) at least two hours before bedtime, reducing irregular or long naps during the daytime, and be sure you’re sleeping on a comfortable and supportive mattress. Trying to achieve adequate sleep on a broken-down, sagging mattress can make suitable rest difficult to come by.

Additional tips to improve the quality of sleep include creating a set bedtime and wake up time to maintain your body’s natural circadian rhythm, avoiding caffeine at least six to seven hours before bed because the stimulant keeps your brain active, keeping your bedroom cool and comfortable between 60 and 67 degrees, decluttering and removing any stress triggers from your sleep space, and keeping your bedroom dark by using blackout curtains, blinds or eye masks.

If you get insufficient sleep, don’t accept sleep deprivation as normal. Instead, focus on getting more sleep and higher quality rest. To have an efficient and healthy immune system, it’s important to make sleep a priority by having a consistent sleep schedule, setting boundaries in your work and social life and having a bedtime routine.