Remember how when you were younger your mom would tell you that if you let yourself get ‘run down’, you’d be more likely to catch a cold? What made you roll your eyes back then may not actually be so foolish after all. Turns out that mom was right and getting the sleep that your body needs goes a long way towards keeping you healthy and helping your body to heal from illness and injury. Cancer experts urge their patients to get plenty of sleep, and in case you weren’t going to stay in bed when you’re sick, the flu and other viruses do a pretty fair job of keeping you there whether you like it or not. Sometimes, just like mom, your body knows best.
Influenza has hits its peak in the United States and still has a few months left before it has run its course, so paying attention to how sleep can help you keep yourself from getting it or recover more quickly if it hits you seems like a particularly relevant topic. Two renowned sleep experts — Dr. Stuart Quan of Brigham and Women’s Hospital Sleep Disorders Service and Bob Rosenberg of the Sleep Disorders Center of Prescott Valley, Arizona and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night; Feel Fantastic Every Day — recently weighed in on the variety of ways and reasons that sleep is so important to the strength and health of our immune system, and how it helps protect us from illness.
Starting off with an example of how closely tied adequate sleep is to the immune process, a study published in the journal Sleep on responses to vaccines done in 2012 showed exactly how intertwined the sleep system and immune system are by showing that subjects who were given the hepatitis B vaccine while sleep deprived had a higher likelihood of being unprotected from the illness several months later. Even more interesting was the fact that the level of antibodies to the condition increased by 56 percent for every additional hour of sleep that the subjects had gotten. Similar results have been measured on responses to the flu vaccine. Though sleep researchers don’t understand why this happens, some theorize that when you don’t have enough sleep, it reduces the number and type of immune cells that are present in your body. Sleep deprivation also impacts the number of cytokines which are present, and these proteins are responsible for signaling cells to create an antibody response. Inadequate concentration can result in a weaker immune system. Quan says, “One night of bad sleep can make a lot of difference.”
Not only can sleep deprivation make you more vulnerable to disease, it can actually make you feel worse. A case in point is a study that Rosenberg talks about that showed that college students who were severely sleep deprived suffered physical aches and pains that closely resembled the condition known as fibromyalgia. And if you get sleep you need when you’re getting sick or already are sick, you’re likely to have a much faster recovery. Rosenberg says, “Sleep is important for healing because slow wave or deep sleep is when tissue repair occurs. We put out most of our growth hormone in deep sleep, and growth hormone is important in terms of repairing tissue, muscle, everything you could think of that has to do with repair.”
That means that even though most of us have the idea that we are supposed to power through being sick, acting like Spartans and showing up to work despite fevers, aches and other symptoms, we are not only putting our coworkers at risk but we are robbing ourselves of a faster healing process. “We look at sleep as a hindrance rather than an important time of restoration and brain growth, “ Rosenberg said.
The thing that is important to remember is that getting the sleep that we need is not a temporary thing or something that we need to do to fix a problem, and then once it is solved return back to our habit of cheating ourselves of the rest that our body needs. When sleep scientists say that we need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night that means all of us, every night. People who insist that they need less sleep than other people are lying to themselves and cheating themselves of their peak performance. The number of people who actually are able to perform normally on less than seven hours of sleep is actually a number that is so low that it is statistically insignificant – short sleepers are incredibly rare in the population. What is common, however, is people who are operating on far less sleep than their bodies need, and who are unable to recognize the fact that they are running far below their potential abilities because they are too sleep deprived to recognize it. Denying being impacted by lack of sleep is a hallmark of sleep deprivation, and numerous studies have proven this.
What is particularly important to remember is that just as we operate at a subpar level when we are sleep deprived and well, our ability to heal and feel better is also impeded when we are sleep deprived and sick. The normal seven to nine hour sleep requirement for a healthy adult increases dramatically when we’re sick, and it is essential that we listen to our bodies and respond in a way that allows us to rebuild our immune system. Whether you are fighting the common cold or struggling with a diagnosis of cancer, our bodies respond by making us feel more tired when we’re sick. Even during a cancer battle, the body manufactures a protein that arises during tumor necrosis that triggers us to fall asleep. According to Rosenberg, “Many think that may be protective, so ride with it. The bottom line is if you’re sleepy or fatigued, get sleep and rest — that’s what your body is telling you.”