If you’re trying to avoid getting sick this winter and taking steps to stay healthy, sleep can provide you with a much needed boost to your immune system. Without good sleep, you’re also more susceptible to catching whatever virus may be going around. Your parents’ recommended cure-all when growing up to “get some rest” was sound advice with a lot of strong science to support it.
In fact, sleep is our best natural defense against illness.
This isn’t necessarily a revelation in 2020; for centuries, sleep has been a go-to remedy for those looking to fight back against the common cold and other illnesses, often going hand-in-hand with a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup.
As winter continues to unfold, it’s important to keep in mind the critical role sleep plays in keeping us healthy.
If you want to know how to boost your immune system, look no further than discovering how to get a good night’s sleep. With enough quality sleep (the key here is quality), your body knows just what to do to guard against illness, including the flu or common cold.
How Sleep Impacts Your Immune System
Sleep affects your immune system in several ways. You can think of sleep as a pitstop for your body, where it’s allowed to go to work repairing itself. But without enough time spent in the shop, it’s unable to get enough work done — or effectively refresh itself and prepare to fight back against illnesses.
Sleep Improves T Cell Function
The first way a good night’s sleep pays dividends is in how it assists T Cells. T Cells are white blood cells that are pivotal in how the body’s immune system responds to potentially dangerous viruses.
T Cell activation is an important process in which these cells attack and destroy infected cells carrying viruses.
But for T Cells to function properly, quality sleep is essential.
This was reinforced last year by a group of German researchers who looked at the connection between sleep and the immune system. They found volunteers who had a good night’s sleep had higher levels of T Cell activation than volunteers who didn’t complete the four sleep cycles.
A lack of sleep, on the other hand, diminishes the efficiency of T Cell responses — and puts the body at risk of getting sick.
Sleep Helps Our Body’s Cytokines Attack the Virus
Another reason sleep is important is it fosters the release and production of cytokine, a versatile protein that supports the immune system’s response to threats.
Cytokines have two main jobs: the first is promoting cell-to-cell communication, and the second is in stimulating cells to move towards areas of inflammation and infection. They, in essence, act as a General for the immune system, directing immune cells to tackle viruses head-on.
Cytokines play a key role both in managing our immune system when we’re healthy and helping it attack viruses when we’re not feeling well. When we’re sick, cytokine production corresponds with fatigue — and this is by design. Your body is sending a natural signal for you to get more rest as it looks to combat your illness.
Sleep loss inhibits the production of cytokines and negatively impacts your body’s immune response to viruses. Both T Cells and cytokines are two necessary tools the body uses to ward off illnesses — and they each benefit from quality sleep.
The body depends on sleep to replenish the proteins and cells to combat diseases. Over the long-term, lack of sleep has been connected to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, among other health problems.
Does Good Sleep Help Fight Colds?
Sleep is a natural immune booster. Getting enough sleep is one of the best measures you can take to actively prevent the cold and other common illnesses.
The strong link between sleep and avoiding the cold was highlighted a few years ago by a team of researchers led by the University of California, San Francisco. The researchers found poor sleep was the prime factor in determining whether someone would get sick after being exposed to the cold virus.
The study looked at the sleep habits of 164 volunteers. After a week, the researchers sequestered the volunteers in a hotel and exposed them to the cold bug via nasal drops.
The results were striking. Volunteers who averaged a good night of sleep — a minimum of 7 hours per night — were much less likely to catch the cold. Conversely, volunteers who slept for 6 hours or less each night were 4.2 times more likely to develop a cold than those getting adequate rest. It dipped even more for those who got 5 hours of sleep or less, with those volunteers being 4.5 more likely to catch the cold.
Poor sleep, according to Dr. Aric Prather, the UCSF professor leading the study, was the defining variable in the study; it was more indicative of whether someone caught the cold than their age, stress levels, race, education, income, or whether they were a smoker.
Chronic poor sleepers, the study concluded, were putting themselves at a much higher risk of getting sick.
Lastly, it’s worth keeping in mind research shows people who reach very old age — 85 and beyond — share certain characteristics about their sleep patterns, including keeping regular sleep schedules; they also retain more time in deep, slow-wave sleep. This study underscores the importance of sleep when it comes to maintaining your health.
Sleep Apnea Can Prevent Deep Uninterrupted Sleep
If you aim for 7-9 hours of sleep at night but suspect you’re getting poor sleep, you may have other sleep disorders or conditions preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep.
If you wake up in the mornings feeling unrefreshed or get extremely fatigued throughout the day, you may be suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. This common medical condition is often undiagnosed and is linked to many health issues, not just poor sleep.
Getting treatment for sleep apnea can allow your body to get into deep restful sleep so your body can fight off viruses and illness. For anyone who has been diagnosed with sleep apnea but isn’t adhering to their treatment protocol, getting back into a nightly routine of treatment will have the same benefits.
Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep, as a natural immune booster, places an added emphasis on getting quality rest.
This is especially true in winter, considering the body’s immune system tends to perform worse in colder temperatures. Knowing that, it’s imperative to give your body the best chance possible to get at least 7 hours of sleep and complete the 4 sleep cycles.
Here are a few tips on how to get better sleep:
Salt Baths: Taking a bath with Epsom salts can help the body relax before bed and eases muscle tension that can keep you up during the night.
Reduce Alcohol and Caffeine: Alcohol and caffeine make it harder to fall and stay asleep; avoid drinking both within 4 hours of going to sleep whenever possible.
Take B Vitamins: B Vitamins, in particular, has been tied to good sleep and helps the body regulate its level of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps the body produce melatonin (our sleep hormone).
Drink Herbal Teas With Honey: Herbal teas like Chamomile are great choices before bed because they help clear congestion — one of the leading causes of sleep fragmentation. Add honey to give your tea a little extra flavor, if needed.
Avoid Blue Light: Reducing blue light exposure an hour before going to sleep will help you get better rest. This is a key step that directly impacts the amount of sleep you get. Blue light, which radiates from cell phones and other mobile devices, hampers the body’s ability to produce melatonin — and makes the time you spend in bed less effective. You’re able to fall asleep faster by avoiding blue light before bed.
Adding these steps to your routine will help you reach your goal of getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night — and avoid getting a nasty cold or illness this winter.
Share this article with anyone you think needs a reminder not to burn the midnight oil. Making sure others are getting the sleep they need, helps reduce the likelihood you’ll be exposed to something they might catch.
Dimitrov, Stoyan et al. (2019). Gαs -coupled receptor signaling and sleep regulate integrin activation of human antigen-specific T cells. Journal of Experimental Medicine 216 (3): 517-526. Retrieved on January 15, 2020 from: https://rupress.org/jem/article/216/3/517/120367/G-s-coupled-receptor-signaling-and-sleep-regulate
Prather, Aric et al. (2015). Behaviorally assessed sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. Sleep, 38 (9): 1353-1359. Retrieved on January 15, 2020 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4531403/#__ffn_sectitle
Mazzotti, Diego Robles, et al. (2014). Human longevity is associated with regular sleep patterns, maintenance of slow wave sleep, and favorable lipid profile. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 6: 134. Retrieved on January 15, 2020 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4067693/
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Harvard Health Publishing. (2012). Blue light has a dark side. Retrieved on January 15, 2020 from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side