What does sleep have anything to do with your immune system?

Your immune system is an amazing army of cells that defend you against pathogens and cancer. According to Dr. Matthew Walker, a Harvard scientist who studies sleep, a single night of sleep deprivation reduces the activity of natural killer cells by 70 percent! It’s hard to imagine that a chronically sleep deprived person has an optimal immune system. Sleep deprivation puts you at risk of not just catching infectious diseases but predisposes you to a much more serious illness, such as cancer.

You may say that it is hard to sleep well, you have insomnia, stress, etc.

Let me be blunt here. Getting good sleep is hard, unless you prioritize it. This is why I am sharing this vital information. More people would be better off if they did their best to stop thinking about the things that they can’t control (the spread of pandemic or the economic crisis) and focus on small incremental changes to improve their own health. I always start with sleep because it is the foundation of health. Nutritious food, exercise, sunlight and connections to other humans are just as important but none of them would do much good if you are not getting enough quality sleep. So work on your sleep as if your life depended on it, because it does.

How can you start sleeping better?

First of all, become aware of your sleep. You can use an advanced method such as Oura ring (a wearable device that tracks sleep). It is my favorite method because it is objective and accurate. Oura ring is easy to use and comes with an app that shows your sleep and wellness data including the duration of sleep stages, movements through the night, HRV (heart rate variability, a measure of how stressed you are), temperature and more. It can also replace a fitbit as it tracks your steps if you wear it all day. There are other tracking devices and apps that provide valuable sleep feedback. Bottom line, become a sleep detective and avoid being in denial about your sleep. Figure out what your sleep issues are, and this will give you clues on how fix to them.

Not that you know what your sleep is like, then what?

Sometimes just knowing your sleep problems automatically adjusts your lifestyle. Let’s say you notice that if you go to bed BEFORE getting a second wind after midnight, you end up sleeping better and longer. Make connections between your sleep and your lifestyle. Sleep is an interesting phenomena, we shut down and are unconscious during sleep. But we are awake and have control of our life (more or less) during the day. So use the associations between your actions and environment during the day and your sleep. You may notice that a stressful conversation or arguing on Facebook leads to nightmares or that eating that bowl of ice-cream at 11 pm causes you night sweats. You know yourself better than any doctor or even your acupuncturist :)

Get curious about these patterns and solve them like a puzzle instead of depending on cookie cutter protocols.

Be proud of your sleep and don’t apologize for prioritizing it!

Our society does not value sleep enough. Yes, we hear on the news, sleep is important, etc. But this message is not clear enough, judging by the sleep behavior I observe in my patients and friends. Our kids start schools at some unfathomable hour, and we are rewarded for staying up late and working. Binging on a Netflix show until 3 a.m. is considered a fun activity. I wish there was a reward for sleeping 8 hours (well, you’ll get a crown on your Oura ring app if you slept well that night). So I suggest becoming aware of your good sleep nights and acknowledging them in some meaningful way.

What happens to your immune system once you sleep well?

Once you start sleeping better, your immune system would instantly respond by making and releasing more cytokine proteins that flight infections and inflammation. This process actually happens during sleep. If you happen to get a vaccine while you’ve been sleeping well, your body would respond by making more antibodies, which will protect you against future infection.

Your T-cells protect you against viruses such as COVID19 and flu, HIV, and cancer. A recent study from Germany showed that sleep lowers stress hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline), which increases the stickiness of adhesion molecules called integrines. Integrine stickiness helps T-cells come in contact with virus-infected or cancer cells and kill them more efficiently.

Good sleep is also important for proliferation of granulocytes (also called neutrophils or natural killer cells), a key component of your immune system. Granulocytes negatively respond to the loss of sleep and increased stress, according to a study done on healthy volunteers. Natural killer cells are the ultimate engulfers of invaders such as viruses and bacteria marked by antibodies and cancer cells. Granulocytes also secrete substances that stimulate monocytes and macrophages that in turn destroy more invading pathogens.

As you can see, your immune system depends on your sleep! It is as essential as air, water, and food. The good news is that the white blood cells are produced in your bone marrow daily, and your good sleep will have a literally overnight effect on the strength of your immunity.

So be a good citizen, take care of your sleep, strengthen your immunity, and protect yourself from the multitude of bugs that are always around!