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Sick and Tired: How the Immune System Suffers When We Don’t Sleep

A new study suggests that chronic sleep deprivation can negatively impact the immune system, leading to an increased incidence of illness. The study, conducted by the University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine, confirms how the immune system is compromised when the body is not fully rested. Many factors can cause and contribute to sleep deprivation, so it is important to recognize the signs and risk factors to combat sleep deprivation early on.


With Americans sleeping less and less, this new information on the impact of sleep deprivation on the immune system is not all too surprising. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that over the past century Americans are sleeping an average of 1.5 to two hours less. What’s even more alarming is that on average, roughly one-third of the working population gets a mere six hours of sleep a night. This shift in Americans’ sleeping patterns is startling and raises some questions about the state of U.S. health. This was one of the driving factors behind this newly released study. Researchers from the University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine carefully analyzed the link by taking "blood samples from 11 pairs of identical twins with different sleep pattern and discovered that the twin with shorter sleep duration had a depressed immune system, compared with his or her sibling."[1] What they discovered is "that the immune system functions best when it gets enough sleep. Seven or more hours of sleep is recommended for optimal health."1 By limiting sleep, it "can increase inflammatory markers and activate immune cells."1 Minimal sleep can also lead to the body shutting down programs that are "involved in immune response of circulating white blood cells."1 Essentially, the less you sleep, the more likely you are to get sick. 

Sleep deprivation is increasing in prevalence in the U.S. These are some of the most common causes:  

  • Caffeine and alcohol consumption
  • Work or school commitments
  • Shift jobs
  • School schedules and study commitments
  • Environment and Sleeping Habits
  • Room temperature
  • Excessive light
  • Noise level
  • Sleeping with a partner who snores
  • New parents adjusting to a newborn’s schedule
  • Insomnia
  • Stress or Anxiety
  • Medication
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Short-term Illness (a cold, the flu, etc.)

Dr. David Buck, a neuromuscular dentist in Lynnwood, Wash., sees many patients who have experienced significant sleep deprivation because of untreated sleep apnea. He understands the importance of quality sleep and how even cutting your night short by an hour or two can be harmful.

"Sleep has multiple functions that are necessary for longevity and for quality of life," Buck said. "[When we sleep], we secrete growth hormones during sleep, and we re-organize our cognitive patterns." 

For patients suffering from a sleep disorder like sleep apnea in which breathing is impacted or obstructed, it can make getting quality rest nearly impossible because the airway is compromised. Sleep apnea patients wake more frequently during the night due to a cessation in breathing. These frequent interruptions in sleep lead to poor sleep quality. That’s why seeking treatment for the condition is so important.

"The goal is to treat sleep apnea in such a way that supports the airway and frees up space for breathing to occur," Buck said.  

At first, sleep deprivation can be hard to spot, but if undetected for too long, it can quickly become dangerous. The first step in the fight against sleep deprivation is to know the signs. They can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Moodiness or Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Depression
  • Increased appetite
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty learning new concepts
  • Clumsiness
  • Decreased libido

The human body needs an adequate amount of quality sleep to function properly, and as this new study suggests, to effectively ward off illness. While there are many things that can be done to boost immunity, in the end, it is no substitute for a good night’s rest.


 [1] University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine. "Chronic sleep deprivation suppresses immune system: Study one of first conducted outside of sleep lab." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 January 2017

 

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