Sleep and your immune system

Here’s why a good night’s sleep is key to avoiding illness and staying healthy

Updates about the coronavirus have been dominating headlines and conversations for the last few weeks. From regular handwashing to self-isolation, we’re all taking steps to reduce our risk of contracting the virus or passing it on to others.

When it comes to staying healthy, our immune system has an enormous part to play. Simply put, your immune system is responsible for providing resistance to infections and toxins. There are many things that can impact the effectiveness of your immune system – and poor quality sleep is right at the top of the list.

Getting a good night’s rest is key to helping your immune system perform at its optimum level. It’s not just about feeling fresh and rolling out on the right side of bed either; there are processes that take place in the body at night – from hormones to brain waves – that correlate with our resistance to infection and disease.

We’re going to take a closer look at the relationship between sleep and your immune system, as well as exploring some of the other ways you can boost your immune system’s effectiveness.

The relationship between sleep and immunity

Research has shown time and time again how important sleep is for your health, both physical and mental. From anxiety and depression to type 2 diabetes and even cancer, a chronic lack of sleep is associated with many of the most serious health conditions. Now, it’s important to clarify that sleep alone isn’t a magic cure to all ailments. But as research into sleep increases, what is becoming clear is that good sleep is the foundation upon which our health can be built.

As a result, lack of sleep has a close relationship with a weakened immune system. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold.

Sleep can also help you recover better once an illness has been contracted. One study published in Sleep in 2015 found that participants who experienced better sleep were able to fight off the rhinovirus more successfully than those who were made to sleep less.

Sleep and T cells

In one 2019 study by the University of Tubingen in Germany, scientists looked at the relationship between sleep and the body’s defences against infection. Researchers explored the impact of sleep on T cells – cells which contribute to the body’s immune response when a potentially harmful foreign body enters the system.

T cells work by recognising pathogens and activating integrins: a type of protein which allows T cells to tackle their targets. During the study, researchers took T cells from both sleeping and sleep-deprived volunteers, and found that the T cells of sleeping people had higher levels of integrin activation.

Co-author of the study, Luciana Besedovsky, said: “Our findings show that sleep has the potential to enhance the efficiency of T cells responses, which is especially relevant in light of the high prevalence of sleep disorders and conditions characterized by impaired sleep.”

Rest promotes cytokine production

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces fewer cytokines. These are a type of protein that target infection and inflammation, helping to support your body’s natural immune response.

Cytokines are produced and released during sleep. This means that, by missing out on sleep, your immune function can be significantly impacted. According to the National Sleep Foundation, chronic sleep loss can even make the flu vaccine less effective by reducing your body’s ability to respond.

How can you improve your sleep and support good immune function?

Getting enough sleep is key to staying healthy. So, putting in place the right routine and creating a calming sleep environment can play a significant role in helping you rest easier – and, as a result, get all the health benefits associated with sleep.

Set yourself a sleep schedule and stick to it, avoiding the likes of caffeine, bright screens and alcohol in the lead up to bedtime. You should also consider engaging in a relaxing activity for 20 minutes to an hour before bed, such as reading or meditation.

Pay attention to temperature and the sleep area, too. A cool bed environment is best for finding sleep and having soft, clean, cosy bedding also has a role to play in both sleep quality and, of course, general hygiene.

Last but not least, the easiest way to improve sleep quality undoubtedly lies in the sleep surface. A truly comfortable mattress and supportive pillows play a part in helping keep you relaxed, refreshed and healthy.

Is your old mattress giving you what you need . . .?